I think today of friends and foes I will not see again.
We have strange and peculiar ways of honouring our dead; we do so by creating a three day holiday so that people can roast weenies and go to the beach. I want to appreciate the spirit of this, and indeed have often said myself that when I die, I would like the event to be commemorated with a big party, but somehow I doubt that the people I spotted on the beach yesterday were remembering their dead. They were just taking advantage of the respite offered by a holiday.
People do not like being reminded of death and grief. They want death to be tidy and clean, a day of mourning and then a cheerful return to work. They do not like it when people want to remember their dead, want to talk about them, honour them, commemorate them. People do not like tears, they do not like processing of grief in public spaces, they do not like to be reminded that someone has died and that person was loved. Social attitudes, or a deep fear of death cultivated by those social attitudes, by the sanitation and isolation of death?
They are especially uncomfortable with being reminded about deaths associated with war. Deaths of people who died in service.
Last week marked the 1,000th US casualty in Afghanistan. His name was Corporal Jacob C. Leicht. He was a Marine. He was 24. He was from Texas.
It is easy to abstract the dead, or to use them as political tools to make a point. It is more difficult to remember that they were human beings, that each had a story, that each had loved ones and family, that each had a name and a rank. Left behind a bedroom or a pet or a job. That these were all real people who lived real lives and did real things. They are not symbols, they are not objects, they are not abstractions.
Memorial Day arose as Decoration Day, from the aftermath of the brutality of the Civil War. After a country divided was reunited, the survivors were left to pick up the pieces and marked the end of the conflict every year by visiting graves to clean and decorate them. This is a tradition that still endures in some regions of the United States, and if I go to Rose Memorial later, I will find flags and flowers on the graves in the military section of the cemetery, probably organised by the same people who put flags up downtown.
Our dead have died on battlefields, in field hospitals, in isolation and desperation at home.
The Washington Post maintains a database of US casualties. Sometimes their stories are brief, with a bare minimum of information. Others are longer, with much more detail, an array of links to provide even more context. Sometimes I see the face of someone I know there. Sometimes it is more remarkable for the faces that are not there; suicides at home, for example, are not necessarily considered casualties, depending on who is doing the considering. I browse through to read the stories and to think about the people behind the numbers.
We keep the dead alive, in a sense, by remembering them. Even if we didn’t know them personally, we can learn about who they were and what they did. We can read tributes to them from the people who did know them and humanise them, put faces and stories and memories to the names. We can visit the graves of people buried far from home to pull weeds and right tombstones, just as people do for our dead somewhere else.
Some people have criticised the scheduling of Memorial Day, arguing that it is cheapened as a holiday by being shifted to create a three day weekend. Scheduling the remembering of the dead for convenience, as it were. But, for people who have dead to remember, who do want to remember their dead, the three day weekend creates an opportunity that might otherwise be lost, a chance to meet up with each other. A chance to travel that might not otherwise be possible.
We cannot make people honour the dead, we cannot force people to remember those who are not here anymore. All we can do is remember our own dead, and hope that circumstances will not change this year for those who have no dead to remember.
I remember, today, those who have died in service to the United States. I remember those who have died fighting with us, and those who have died fighting against us, and those who have died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the civilians who did not sign up to serve and committed no crime other than existing.
Today, I have no stomach for weenies.