I love paradoxes. I’m not crazy about contradictions. Memorial Day–as it’s currently observed and celebrated, is a contradiction. Its name and history suggest that the day is about remembering members of the military who died in the service of their country. In practice, it’s a festival that marks the beginning of summer.
When I was growing up, my family didn’t believe in voting, let alone military service. My grandfather was a conscientious objector during World War II, and he served as a civilian ambulance driver at home during the war. My father didn’t get drafted during Vietnam. As a child, my only contact with the military was driving occasionally past the Fort Dix exit on the Jersey Turnpike.
It’s a whole different ballgame living here in Alaska while the U.S. fights two wars. When we lived in Eagle River, many of our neighbors worked at either Elmendorf Air Force Base or Fort Richardson. Most businesses in the area offer some sort of military discount–even McDonald’s. On the drive home from Anchorage, it was not uncommon to see fighter jets chasing each other across the sky, or to feel like ducking as a huge C-17 skimmed the highway, on its way to landing at Elmendorf.
As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. It’s hard to maintain respect for the military when you’ve watched someone in uniform kick the crap out of the garage door in your apartment building (true story). Or when it feels like 95% of the pick-up trucks that tailgate you or cut you off on the highway are fueled by testosterone and driven by, you guessed it, people in uniform.
Members of the military are my neighbors, but they’re not my friends. I know them well enough to know their flaws, but not well enough to love them despite their flaws. And because of that, it’s easy to be cynical.
It’s easy to believe that military service has become a taxpayer-funded internship program for people looking for lucrative post-service careers as contractors.
It’s easy to say, “Yeah, right,” when you hear clichés about sacrifice for our country, and the defense of freedom. Particularly when you feel like one of the two wars we’re fighting was based on a lie, and the other started as vengeance and has long-since forgotten its purpose.
But like I said, service members are my neighbors, not my friends. I don’t know their hearts. I don’t know if they struggle to live up to their best intentions. I only know their sometimes-very-public brokenness.
Last Saturday night my partner and I watched the movie Brothers. A harrowing tale of a Marine’s shattered psyche after being held hostage in Afghanistan, it ends with the quote, “Only the dead see the end of war.”
It seems to me that Memorial Day, this mixed-up contradiction of a holiday, only ensures that there are more dead. We begin the day with politicians laying wreaths and spouting platitudes about honor, glory and sacrifice–and then we head off to our picnics and barbecues. The weather is usually beautiful.
War is a terrible thing. The people who sign up to “serve their country” and “preserve our freedom” are a complicated mix of motivations, just like the rest of us. And when we send them off to war, they come home broken–or they don’t come home at all.
I’m not a pacifist. Some wars make sense to me. Defeating Nazi Germany. Preserving the union and freeing the slaves (yes, I know it was in that order). Fighting for self-determination (even if the more-perfect union we created was far from perfect).
But war should be rare, and if we want to ensure its rarity, we have to tell the truth about war. War is hell, not glory. And it’s certainly not a picnic.
The President’s Memorial Day speech got rained out today. It seems appropriate to me that he huddled under an umbrella, speaking only long enough to warn them of the dangers of lightning, and to encourage them to take cover.