The origins of Memorial Day lie in Decoration Day, a Civil War-era tradition that began in the South around 1865. The practice of visiting cemeteries in an organised way on specific dates is common to many cultures; in some, you date your cemetery visits on a calendar based on the death of the loved one, while in others, they are organised around a date, like Day of the Dead in Mexico. It is perhaps not unusual that residents of the South, reeling from the catastrophe of the Civil War, chose to take to their cemeteries to mourn, and visit, their dead, to decide to schedule that event for a day that wouldn’t commemorate a battle, lost or won. The holiday caught on, and in the wake of the First World War, rather than being specific to the Civil War, it was adopted to commemorate all war dead from the United States, no matter which conflicts they served in.
Few people visit cemeteries on Memorial Day anymore, other than service organizations who make a point of putting flags on graves. I usually spend time in cemetery service throughout the year, weeding, cleaning and straightening headstones, dealing with flowers, and so forth, and sometimes I schedule a visit for Memorial Day, while in other years, I do not. Cemetery service for me is a complicated thing that I have a lot of thoughts about which I don’t really have room for here; suffice it to say that it is a way of honouring the dead and the sense of community around them, and a way of letting the world know that we do not forget our dead. The regimented rows of military headstones are a silent reminder of a cost of war.
And sometimes it seems to me like people would rather that war remain silent, that we not discuss the costs of war. War is a very abstract thing for many civilians in the United States right now. Many people don’t know servicemembers, let alone servicemembers who have been killed in action. Many people seem to prefer to keep it that way; the war is routinely pushed to the back pages, these days, the casualty counts sink to the lesser-seen portions of the newspaper. We do not even acknowledge our war dead when we talk about things like the tremendous advances in traumatic brain injury treatment, some of which were won at the cost of soldiers’ lives (members of the military in general, throughout history, have made immense contributions to trauma medicine and medical developments that save the lives of civilians every day).
I think of my war dead every day, but they seem especially loud on Memorial Day, clamouring for attention. I see the blatant displays of nationalism in the windows of certain businesses that crop up on Memorial Day, the ‘support our troops’ banners, and I wonder, always, what they are doing to support the troops beyond flying a banner, what it is they do the rest of the year, after they fold their flags up and wash the tempura paint off the windows. Do they think of their war dead? Have they any war dead? Do they contribute to charitable organizations? Do they send things to active duty servicemembers? It is impossible to judge, of course, from a mere flag painted on a window, but my mind creeps around it, some days.
My mind creeps a lot these days, it seems like, sometimes. There are a lot of reasons why war feels less immediate to many civilians now; the lack of a draft is certainly responsible. One of the consequences of an all-volunteer military is that many civilians think they can make assessments about the approximately 1.5 million people serving worldwide right now. There are stereotypes about what leads people to military service, why people pursue military careers, and these play out in the conscious decision to spend a lot of time ignoring the military.
The distance of wars taking place in countries far away plays a role as well, as does the government’s lack of discussion about the war. I very much get the sense that at least part of the government feels like we are fighting dirty wars right now, which means that we are not deluged in signaling and messages about them. We must actively seek these things out. We are not being asked to buy war bonds, to save scrap metal, to be conscious about our use of energy to conserve it for military purposes. We are not being asked, on a personal level, to make sacrifices, and the news doesn’t thrust the war in our face every day because it is too busy, apparently, covering celebrities and royal weddings. CNN certainly doesn’t start coverage at an absurd hour of the morning to cover the wars, that’s for sure.
There’s an attitude that people in the military themselves are isolated from the war, again, a consequence of the belief that it is possible to use your own attitudes about military service to make inferences about members of the military. Being ‘distant’ would most certainly be a surprise to servicemembers on the ground, but also to the people on carriers and destroyers responding to chemical weapons warnings and running boarding operations on ship traffic. This is not ‘distant’ and it comes with real costs. And when you return to the States, you are reminded that most people don’t know what you do or why you do it, let alone care.
And if you return in a coffin, people will say things about ‘wasted lives’ and turn away. Because apparently it is easier to betray our war dead, to throw them away, than it is to face them.