Memorial Day: Remembering Those Who Didn't Make it Back

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States on which we are encouraged to remember those who died during the course of military service. While some still mark the day by visiting cemeteries and war memorials, it has taken on a variety of meanings for many that have little to do with its origins. Some look forward to the sales while complaining about the inevitable spike in gas prices, parents of school-age children brace for the beginning of summer vacation, and others use the day as yet another excuse to grill meat. Personally, I think those few who still pause to remember those who have died in our many wars have the right idea. We all ought to be doing more of that, especially if it can prevent us from putting others in similar situations.

Growing up, Memorial Day seemed to focus on World War II and the Korean War to a somewhat lesser extent. The country was still struggling to come to terms with Vietnam when I was a child. I remember hearing many claim that World War II was the last "noble war" in which the U.S. was involved. Although some would extend this to the Korean War, it was clear that people did not feel this way about Vietnam. This never seemed fair to me. Plenty of people died there too, but it seemed to be the one U.S. war nobody wanted to talk about.

I was too young to remember Vietnam, but I grew up in its shadow. I only had one family member who served in Vietnam, and he made it out alive. Still, it had a profound impact on my entire family and the culture that surrounded us. I remember standing in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC at the age of 14 and being overcome with powerful emotions I did not fully understand. The memorial had generated considerable controversy. Some considered it so ugly as to be an insult to those who died in that war. I found it quite effective. It is still seared into my memory.

The U.S. has been involved in multiple wars for most of my life. We had a break following Vietnam, but it wasn't long before we were back at it again. Although there were various conflicts (that's what we refer to wars we don't want to acknowledge) between Vietnam and the first Gulf War, it was that first Gulf War I remember as a turning point when war become personally relevant in a different way than it had before. I was in college at the time, and I knew people who served. Most made it back; some did not. The same has been true for every war since.

These days, I find that I cannot think about Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or even the Fourth of July without wondering why the United States seems to be so much more inclined that nearly every other Western democracy to go to war and remain there. Why must we always be the one to play world cop? I suspect it is, at least in part, a consequence of our massive military spending. It boggles the mind that we still insist on calling this "defense spending" even though few of our wars have involved defending more than our national pride or economic engine. It is almost as if our leaders think that if we're going to have this massive and well-funded military machine, we'd better use it so that nobody questions whether it is necessary.

Memorial Day reminds me that our fondness for war comes at a great cost. It is why we are one of the few Western democracies that refuses to provide our citizens with affordable healthcare and why we tolerate a crumbling infrastructure. There have been wars where it was appropriate to say that those who died were making the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and to preserve our way of life. Unfortunately, there have been even more wars, especially the recent ones, where has been much harder to say these things. I'd like to say them anyway because I want to believe them. I think that's because I find the alternative too awful to contemplate.

It should be clear that we owe those who serve far more than we ever deliver. At a minimum, we need to be more reluctant to send them into harm's way. We need to be better at honoring those who have given their lives in service to our country and caring for those who are now facing a life without them. We need to be better about the care we provide to those who are fortunate enough to make it home after having served. And finally, I think we owe everyone, including ourselves, more than complacency with what we have allowed ourselves to become. We can do much better. Wouldn't those who died for America want us to do better?

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2018. It was revised and expanded in 2021.