I woke up particularly tired this morning, as if a cloud of grief hovered above, and then I remembered it’s Memorial Day.
It’s not that I grieve for anyone in particular who died while in service of our country. But I do grieve.
I miss my parents, and I miss their annual tradition of cleaning out the garage on Memorial Day.
I miss seeing American flags waving way back when–when I thought this was a joyful holiday, not a sorrowful one.
I miss the sound of engines revving, and the chills up my spine, while the national anthem was being sung at the Indy 500 on Memorial Day because the race got rained out the day before.
But there is also a deeper grief lurking in my bones today.
There is a sorrow for those who lost their lives in war, and there is a sorrow for our society. As advanced as we think we are, we still resort to war and violence to accomplish that which somebody high up in government deems important.
Back in 1868 on that first Memorial Day, when the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated at Arlington National Cemetery, James Garfield said this.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
How noble, this death-by-war, he made it seem. How perfectly virtuous. But did those soldiers really accept death for love of country?
Do soldiers today accept death for love of country?
Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning didn’t. He joined the military as a young man hoping to earn some money to pay off his student loans. He admits he was looking for meaning in his life. But not death. In fact, he says that many young people often join the military not because they accept death but because it seems to be their only option. Maybe they joined because of “money, or a judge, or a need for a rite of passage, or the end of athletic stardom,” he says.
And then, upon joining, Fanning and others were brow-beaten into believing that death–at least the enemy’s death–was honorable. In fact, his first platoon sergeant insisted, “you want to feel the warm red blood of your enemy run down your knife blade.” As time went on, the military leaders continued to work on him, using anti-Muslim language, and cutting him off psychologically from his past, and sending him out into the dangerous world trying to draw bad guys into a fight to justify why he was there. To justify the horrors he witnessed.
The horrors of battle have to be glorified, according to author Michael Stephenson. “There has to be some kind of apparatus, intellectual and psychological, to sustain soldiers to go through what they have to go through.” Or else they wouldn’t enlist. Or endure.
From Civil War times through today, our government has gone to great lengths to glorify battle and to show our military personnel as individuals proudly and bravely serving their country. Photos from the field “are scrutinized before they are released to the public to ensure the soldiers are cleanshaven and wearing the proper uniforms, gloves, and eye protection,” according to Greg Jaffe for the Washington Post.
But Pfc. Ted Daniels’s video a few years back made it clear that it’s not all hunky-dory on the battlefield and, in fact, fear and vulnerability are alive and well for many soldiers. Although he took a lot of online flack for posting his video, it felt authentic to me and reminded me of Restrepo, a documentary film made by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (who was later killed by mortar fire in Libya) as well as the Academy Award winner The Hurt Locker.
War is not pretty. Or safe.
And death by war is not necessarily something soldiers readily accept.
So I grieve today for the men and women who died in battle when they weren’t ready to die.
And I also grieve for our society, because we still have battles over land or ideology or whatever, because we are still fighting to the death over things that aren’t, and will never be, nearly as important as human life.
If you’d like to read more of my blogs, consider subscribing with the RSS Feed at the top of this page. Or just check back every Monday (or Tuesday).