How Should We Memorialize the War Dead?

In the U.S., our job for today is clear. It’s Memorial Day and there are a solemn thoughts to have and wreaths to lay. “Ultimate sacrifice” must be repeated again and again. And as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes learned last year, best not to raise even the smallest question of whether  painting each and every dead soldier with a broad “hero” brush is accurate.

President Obama visited the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gave a speech  mourning the fact that war touches so few American lives these days. Not, mind you, because that makes wars harder to stop, but because “not all Americans may always see or fully grasp the depths of sacrifice, the profound costs that are made in our name, right now, as we speak, every day.” It’s true that war is dull and endless to much of America now, and that soldiers who return from war broken and riddled with PTSD are tucked away out of sight. But discomfort with the reality of war — even its effects on “our” guys and gals — has never stopped celebration and perpetuation of its theoretical gloriousness.

There are are a lot of dead to consider on a day like today — certainly they weren’t all bad people, even when the cause was American imperialism and they were — at best — draftees too scared to drop everything and run to Canada. (What about all those dead draftees? Aren’t there a few peeved young dead men wondering why they’re being celebrated today?)

So what’s Memorial Day for? We already have Veteran’s Day. November 11 once celebrated something solemn and tangible — the end of a war. Not a well-ended war, considering how easily it lead to the worst one in history. But honoring the stoppage of that carnage — albeit too little, too late for 15 million men — is a truer celebration than a non-specific day of thanking veterans for their “service.” Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 declaration to mark the day was war mongerish, but the 1926 Joint Resolution by Congress about Armistice Day was downright dovish:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and

Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; […]

We used to actually celebrate the end of a war in America. What a strange concept. But after World War II and Korea, veterans were included in the honoring, and Armistice Day turned to Veteran’s Day.

Funny also how Decoration Day turned to Memorial Day. After the Civil War, mourning families put flowers on the graves of their fallen. But that personal sorrow, too, became a generic “celebration” instead of a response  — albeit one officially respectful to the cause — to the blood and misery of the Civil War. Now you needn’t think about World War I or the Civil War, or try to picture them. Just consider nice ideas like the bravery of veterans and the solemnity of memorializing dead soldiers in between carefully browning each side of your barbecuing bratwurst. If we’re all mourning dead soldiers today, and honoring living ones in November, what does it matter how they die, or who they’ve killed? With one sweep, it’s all honorable, and it’s all tragic, and that turns reality into a bumper sticker.

Over at Free Association, Sheldon Richman is celebrating the day as he always does, by watching the film The Americanization of Emily. This masterpiece goes beyond a Catch-22-type absurdest critique of the lunacy of war, and  more daringly critiques the dangers of memorializing soldiers the way that we do. Says the main character at one point:

I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades . . . we shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices….

Yet another thing that war robs from family members of dead soldiers is a way to mourn their loved ones without helping to prop up the very system that had them killed. It is not morally neutral to join the military, and so it’s not morally neutral to mourn war dead. At least not while this dangerous cult of adoration exists. And not while every dead American soldier is a tragedy, and a young, brave life taken, but every dead foreigner is a shame at best, but usually just a number, just one forgotten number out of hundreds, thousands, and millions.

17 thoughts on “How Should We Memorialize the War Dead?”

  1. Re this topic, Obama's speach and Americanization of Emily:

    Obama also quoted a letter from a North Carolina mother of two Marines, who beseeched the public not to "forget about my child."

    "On this Memorial Day and every day let us be true and meet that promise," he said. "Let us never forget to always remember.” http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/27/185330

    Those who knew him can remember the person he was, but lady he died (and young) for NOTHING WORTHWHILE at all!!!

    I think most Americans actually have the right idea: enjoy the day off and the usually good weather this time of year – enjoy friends, family, food, music, play sports, and don't think about politics and the lousy scumbags that run the world. And the fact that about the only value that triumps blind production and moneymaking and living to work in this culture (and allows us a day off) is nationalism and bloody war and empire worship. Take a day off from thinking about that.

  2. Free association has it all wrong. It's not the generals who hate war- they who enjoy it from the comfort of air conditioned offices and trailers. It's the grunts in the trenches who pull the triggers, watch the "accidental" destruction of the lives and homes of innocents caught in the middle, and who watch their friends die right in front of their eyes. They are the ones most qualified to speak about how horrible it is.
    The rest of us could learn a thing or two from them. Every time someone comes back in a box they trot out the flag and mouth words in speeches and parades about the noble sacrifice and all that. What about those who suffer and die in the name of bringing peace to the world? Surely most common people with common sense who would like too retain their sense of humanity will stay a million miles away from any uniform or army.

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