May 28, 2018

Memorial Day

Boston Common Memorial Day 2014

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States on which we are encouraged to remember all those who died during the course of military service. Like every American holiday that occurs during the late spring through early fall, most people seem to observe it primarily by gathering with family or friends to grill meat of some variety. And of course, Memorial Day has traditionally marked the beginning of the summer travel season. Still, the purpose of the holiday involves remembering those who have died in our many wars, and I think it is appropriate to do so.

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, but it would not take long for it to be incorporated into what I understood as Memorial Day. I remember hearing many claim that World War II was the last "noble war" in which the U.S. was involved. And although some would extend this to the Korean War, Vietnam was usually left out. This never seemed fair to me. Plenty of people died there too, but it seemed to be the one war nobody wanted to talk about.

While I was too young to remember Vietnam, I think it is fair to say that 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 was very new at that time, and it 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, and it is still seared into my memory.

It seems that the U.S. has been involved in multiple wars for most of my life. We had a break following Vietnam, but it is difficult to imagine we'll have another one in the foreseeable future. Although there were various conflicts (that's what we refer to wars we don't want to acknowledge) in between Vietnam and the first Gulf War, it was that first Gulf War I remember as a turning point. I was in college at the time, and I knew people who served. Most made it back; some did not. And the same has been true for every war since.

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 country to go to war. 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 is almost as if our leaders think that if we're going to have it, we might as well use it.

Memorial Day always reminds me that this fondness for war comes at a great cost. There have been wars where I feel it is appropriate to say that those who died were making the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and to preserve our way of life. But there have been even more wars, especially the recent ones, where it is much harder to say these things. I want to say them anyway because I want to believe them, but I recognize that I want to believe them because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

I think that we owe those who serve far more than we deliver. We need to be much more reluctant to send them into harm's way, using war as a last resort. We need to be better at honoring those who have given their lives in service to our country. And we need to be far better about the care we provide to those who are fortunate enough to make it home after having served.