Is there room on Memorial Day to remember the nation’s fallen, metaphorical soldiers for social justice, who were not in the military? Or does that cheapen the Memorial Day holiday? Or has the holiday already been so cheapened by commercialism, its use as an occasional for a party or vacation, and cheap and fleeting sanctimony that it doesn’t matter what else cheapens it?
The answers are “yes,” “no,” and “no” — but that would make for a pretty short essay. So: some thoughts on Memorial Day.
One thing I like about Memorial Day is that it’s the best secular example I can think of to explain to people who aren’t Jewish of our relationship to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. (Other religions will have their own examples; Good Friday, for example.) I cringe a bit when people wish me a “Happy Yom Kippur,” which is not supposed to be a happy holiday, and I do the same regarding Memorial Day. While the Fourth of July is supposed to be visit to a picnic and fireworks show, Memorial Day is like a visit to a cemetery. You’re not sorry that you went, but it’s not an occasion for exuberant joy. It’s a holiday that is supposed to make us think — even to regret.
I tend to straddle the worlds of both mainstream and leftist politics, so I have plenty of friends who reject Memorial Day as a militaristic holiday. I don’t. For me, it’s a holiday — as in “holy day,” not day for frolic — about sacrifice and death. The holiday is what you make of it. On Memorial Day, I think of the thousands of lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, so many of them needlessly — and I wonder if next Memorial Day we will add to the list soldiers, sailors and airmen lost in Iran. One can be against the use of military force while cherishing bravery and self-sacrifice; in fact, the more admirable the character of those who die in more, the more bitter the taste of the needless, stupid, or politically advantageous sacrifice of those lives and that character should be.
I have two problems with Memorial Day, as celebrated. One is that people tend not to take it seriously enough. Sometimes we approach the “remembrance” part of Memorial Day as an empty ritual, the equivalent of singing the national anthem at a baseball game as a prelude to “Play Ball!” Back when Iraq was a “hot” war, I and my fellow peace activists used to gather to read out the names of all of the dead to that point — 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, and we fortunately did not reach 5000 troops, although the number of injured Americans and Iraqi civilians will literally never be known — as a way of making the deaths real. Why was this a custom of the anti-war Left and not of the bellicose Right? Does the Right want the dead of Memorial Day to be approached as abstractions rather than as flesh and blood?
That said, I don’t like the appropriation of Memorial Day as an anti-military holiday and more than I like its being used as an occasion to drum up support for the bloated defense budget. I wish that it were a day when we could just set politics aside — mourn the many young lives cut short and let people draw their own conclusions. (Should it be a day to regret our wrongs to innocents killed by our military? Maybe — or maybe we should adopt a Day of Atonement as a secular holiday as well.)
My other problem with Memorial Day is its narrowness. People in the military are not the only ones who die for their country; I wish that Memorial Day could be a day of remembrance for all who have died in the service of their country. Even as I write that, I can anticipate people reacting as if saying so is an insult to the military. In my mind, it is not, but I suppose that I had better explain.
At our best — World War II, and I’d add Libya too — we fight for the sorts of universal principles embedded in our Declaration of Independence: “self-evident truths” about equality, and so on. That is our patrimony as Americans; if there is a proper “American exceptionalism,” that is its core — and our responsibility remains what we can do to honor it. One thing that we do is to be willing to suffer pain and punishment — even sometimes death — to make the world a better place.
For that, I look to the civil rights movement and its martyrs — civil rights activists Goodman, Cheney and Schwermer, killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which to his eternal shame Ronald Reagan not that many years later chose as the site to kick off his Presidential campaign. I look to Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; to Medger Evers and (I’ll argue) Malcolm X; to Mohandas Gandhi and Steven Biko; to Harvey Milk and George Moscone; and those who suffered but did not die (and still live), like Nelson Mandela and Aun San Suu Kyi.
Is there room for such remembrance on Memorial Day?
Many who say that they support the military will say that there is not, that anything that detracts from the focus on dead soldiers is unacceptable. If those people share my view of Memorial Day as a solemn holiday, they have a point — but in that case they have a lot of distracting secular frivolity that they should condemn (sales! vacations! events!) before they get to complaining about our civil rights martyrs sharing the spotlight. Did Martin Luther King, Jr. do as much — take as many risks, pay as dear a price — for this nation’s values and ideals as any name carved into the Vietnam Memorial? I would think so. I would think that being put in that company — broadening our conception of Memorial Day — would be a compliment to our military troops, rather than an insult.
What I find encouraging is that the military itself may agree. Early in the Obama Administration, the Secretary of the Navy, a former Governor of the strife-torn state of Mississippi, announced that it would name a dry cargo ship for a military veteran whose military service itself, admirable as it was, would not likely have won him such an honor. Last October, it was launched; last November, it was christened, in the presence of the widow of the fallen, as the USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE-13). And I will proudly celebrate the memory of Medgar Evers, who died violently for his country but not in a war against a foreign enemy, on this Memorial Day. There is room for such a remembrance today — and if you don’t already remember, to learn.