Memorial Day

The sounds and smells of barbecues filled the air this weekend, people laughing over burgers and ears of corn imported from who knows where. Just another three day weekend, gearing up for summer, white shoes out at last, people preparing for several months of sun (or fog, if you live on the coast of California) and some free time, in many cases. Something about summer brings everything to a slowdown, encourages you to sit in the shade and watch things drift by. The air turns hot and heavy as it starts to dry and the moisture wicks out of your body, cracking delicate skin.

A quirk of geography allows me to hear noises from the east side of town, soccer matches and church bells and lawnmowers. On long weekends, they filter through the trees and disturb the usual quiet at my house, and I’m reminded that I’m so close to town as the crow flies that I could practically take a long leap and be inside city limits, although I’d have to drive over a mile to get there on surface roads. Sometimes I lie on the lawn and enjoy the best of both worlds, the calm and stillness with faint human noises edging in at the corners of my senses.

Driving through town, you could see a scattering of US flags today, a reminder that this is not just another three day weekend, actually: It’s Memorial Day, set aside for the remembrance of those who have given their lives in service to the United States throughout our short and bloody history. Those flags are dutifully put up for every major government holiday by a team of volunteers, who round them all up at the end and neatly store them until they are needed again. It gives you kind of a bucolic small-town moment, all the red white and blue fluttering, and then you remember what they are there for and they don’t seem so innocent.

A lot of rhetoric surrounds Memorial Day and I’m frankly not very interested in it, because this should not be a time for rhetoric, but reflection.

This is a day to commemorate those who have gone before us. Some of those men and women died in training, others on the battlefield, others still while performing routine duties. Some died far from home and others surrounded by friends and family. Some were made sick by their service with toxic chemicals and dangerous workplaces, others killed by enemy forces. Some died so brutally that their remains still haven’t been recovered. Some were so disrespected that their remains were dumped in landfills rather than being handled appropriately and with honour.

All of them left people behind; families, perhaps, parents and siblings and maybe partners and children of their own. Close friends. Pets, in some cases. All of them left a legacy of objects and dreams and beliefs and thoughts, too, because they were individuals with lives of their own, not inseparable parts of a hivemind with no free will or independent thought. They may have joined the military with the knowledge that they were running the risk of leaving these parts of their lives behind, but they did it anyway, and seeing them used as rhetorical tools on a day set aside for remembrance makes my lip curl.

It makes me sneer when people with no experience talk about their deaths as ‘senseless’ and ‘futile’ and ‘vain,’ distancing themselves from the very real human beings behind their rhetoric. When people with no knowledge of what life is like in the military, and for military families, assert knowledge and take ownership of these deaths, it frustrates me. Equally so, it frustrates me to see people beating the drum of patriotism on Memorial Day, making people into martyrs, again, objects without any history or personal sense of place. Just tools to be moved around a board in order to score points.

The fundamental humanity of our dead is not recognised in either case; in neither case do we take ownership of our dead, do we admit our own responsibility to them. These are our dead. Look at them. Know them.

Real people die in service for their country. Not just the people who have died for the United States, but also for other nations around the world; while Memorial Day is a US-specific holiday, that doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on the deaths of people who are not from this nation, who may even have fought against this nation at some point. And others have died in service alongside them; local support staff, translators, journalists intent on covering conflicts up close and personal so their readers have a better understanding of the front lines. War comes with high costs and we must talk about them.

I think of them today along with the people they left behind, and the work they left undone. The books never written, craft projects never finished, careers never pursued because people never had an opportunity, animals still waiting patiently by the gate for someone who is never coming home. And I thank them for their service and their sacrifice, because that is all I am interested in doing today; I am not interested in rhetoric and debate and policy discussions. I can take those things up tomorrow. Here and now, I salute those who have died in service to their country and their communities, and I work in the hopes of preventing such deaths in the future.