Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A few Memorial Day thoughts

Travel and personal stuff kept me away from blogging, so this post isn't exactly at its timely-est. Let's just call it a really long weekend.

A few pieces caught my eye around the holiday. Alison Buckholtz's piece for Slate on the political (or apolitical) meanings of flying the American Flag outside of one's home was really interesting, particularly on her point that patriotic pomp has become so ingrained into the political rhetoric of the Right that to display the flag opens one up to a whole set of assumptions as to one's politics.

When it's so easy for a columnist to mail in some lazy holiday piece it's nice to have people like Jon Meacham around to actually think about what they're doing. His piece in Newsweek on the widening disconnect between the experience of those in the military from everyone else was a pleasant moment of sobriety. I think it is, as he claims, much easier for the public to unflinchingly support as he puts it "the projection of force" because the consequences of doing so are limited to a particular set of American families. Meacham nibbles around the edges of the hard truth left unsaid on days like Memorial Day -- that the military is an extension of American foreign policy, and that people die in the pursuit of interests of that foreign policy. Being empathetic with those who lost loved ones in that process should be part of what it is to be patriotic. But it is difficult -- particularly with the divisions of class, geography, and experience that have widened in the all-volunteer force.

When it began, Memorial Day originally was all about death. It was a way for the women who developed it to reflect on the immense loss of life the Civil War wrought on the nation. It was also a way to recapture a bit of human dignity for those loved ones who lay anonymously in mass graves near battlefields scattered about the country, a fate that almost half of the fallen endured. About 18 percent of all white males of military age in the South died in the war. Communities on both sides lost almost all of their young men as locally-raised regiments were decimated.

But then the meaning of the holiday (originally Decoration Day- as in decoration of gravesites) shifted. Meacham cites the same veterans responsible for the shift, as Union men themselves took up the cause of memoralizing their fallen comrades and crafting the political meaning of the effort. The holiday became more about the celebration of manly virtue and of the fighting spirit that defined national greatness. Veterans and similar patriotic groups have guarded its meaning ever since. The holiday has moved  beyond a public and sentimental commemoration of the dead and toward a generic celebration of heroism and sacrifice that points to graves as evidence of the necessity of a strong military, robust foreign policy, and dutiful loyalty.

Even simple and well-meaning celebrations seem to have lost touch with Memorial Day's morbid grounding. I was watching CBS Sunday Morning with my dad and was struck by a piece on a guy in the Midwest who kept meticulous records of every veteran's grave in his community and took it upon himself to place a flag on the person's grave before Memorial Day. But he did it, I opined, outside of the spirit of the original holiday because he did it for every veteran, even guys who died years later from natural causes.

My dad basically answered back, so what? Service is service, whether or not a guy gets capped by the bad guys or dies of a heart attack 50 years later. But the more "service" is unblinkingly celebrated, and the more generic our "support" of the troops becomes, the less tied to the actual reasons for military intervention the act of warfighting will become. To declare all dead, even those who died peacefully decades later, to be war dead, or to declare all service heroic in many ways absolves us all from the responsibility of actually thinking about what it would mean to have people killed in the pursuit of foreign policy ends. With an all-volunteer force, it becomes even easier because those who enlist willfully choose this heroic path for themselves.

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