The peculiarity of Memorial Day

Every November, much of the world observes Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, or some version thereof — a sombre holiday honouring those who have died in war. It’s a day that confronts people with the ugliness of war and the incredibly high cost of sending troops overseas (or battling internally). The tradition started in the wake of the First World War — ‘The War,’ before there was another one — with people pledging that they would never wage war on such a scale again, it’s become poignant, a bit stark, a reminder that the world has yet to learn its lesson.

But the United States doesn’t observe Remembrance Day. Instead, it observes Veterans Day. The day it reserves for honouring its war dead is Memorial Day, in the bright, brassy days of late May, the cusp of summer, the moment when everyone is beginning to stretch their legs and look longingly out their windows, wondering if they can slip out early. Remembrance Day is grim events in the rain, a bitter, dull kind of sadness. Memorial Day is a three day weekend, barbecues and parties, sunburns, summer at the tip of your lips.

I confess, I struggle with this tension. I have a different relationship to death, grief, and dying than many people in the US, and I have a different relationship with the military than many liberal civilians. There’s an intense complexity to be confronted here, with war deaths not just being personal tragedies that profoundly affect families, but also national tragedies tied to larger cultural and political decisions to go to war, to put lives on the line in the name of some sort of public good. With the US military being all volunteer, these are the lives of people who (to some degree — there are cultural factors that can pressure people to enlist or join ROTC) in some senses willingly took on jobs they knew they might not return from.

Every person in the military has an individual relationship with the nation, the military, and war — there’s a tendency among liberal civilians to put words into the mouths of the military, or to believe that all people join for one reason and think in the same ways. Thus we hear that soldiers are nationalists, perhaps, or that people love war, or on the contrast that everyone is bitter and angry about war and thinks it a waste, or any number of other things. This denies the dead their own agency and complexity, but it still brings us back to the larger question of how we commemorate their passing as the nation takes a proprietary air, one almost of ownership, over their deaths, regardless as to the preferences of the loved ones who survived them.

I often say that when I die, I want people to hold a big party — lay me out in the living room (or on the beach, depending on the time of year), eat lots of food, play music, dance, hang out, have fun. This is how I want to be remembered, not with a grim memorial or sterile funeral — when everyone’s done, they can throw me in the back of the pickup and drive me to the crematorium. So in a sense, there’s something that I personally love about the idea of celebrating the dead by celebrating life, smelling delicious things cooking as the afternoon hours stretch on, splashing in the pool, playing music, drinking beer. (P.S. Please leave my corpse in the shade just this once to avoid an Unfortunate Incident.)

But that’s just a reflection of how want to be remembered, what want people to do. Those who die in war might feel differently — might prefer the quiet, thoughtful, deliberate nature of Remembrance Day ceremonies against the boisterous assertiveness of Memorial Day. It is an event strangely illustrative of American Exceptionalism, that of course we would carve out our very own special day in the calendar instead of following global convention (as seen with May Day and Labor Day as well). It’s not enough for the United States to honour its dead — it wants to do so on its own day. There’s an argument to be made for reflecting on our past in our own way, for not wanting to disrespect Remembrance Day ceremonies with our own approach to dealing with our dead, but there’s also an argument to be made for recognising that commemorating the dead is an incredibly diverse activity.

I wonder, though, if Memorial Day is less of a celebration and more of a deflection. Many people taking advantage of the three day weekend are hardly spending much time thinking about lives lost overseas and our long and complicated history with warfare. For families who would prefer to spend some private time, an extra day, a breather, an escape from the world could be nice — if it weren’t surrounded with a barrage of social messaging from notices about ‘Memorial Day blowout sales!’ to US flags pointedly displayed everywhere, as though patriotism is a thing to be measured in red, white, and blue nylon rather than something more personal and intrinsic, the reflection of a deeply individual relationship with your country.

I know that I am not alone in thinking of our dead today, and how they got there, and how, perhaps, we can prevent loss of life in the future by shifting our culture away from one of war and into one of more moderate solutions to social problems. Being surrounded by violence does not necessarily mean that we need to participate in it, or that the only way to counteract that violence is to shoot back. And deflecting the truth doesn’t make it go away.

Image: Flower on a grave, mjviljan, Flickr