Memorial Day’s Pretense of Remembrance

I don’t do Memorial Day. I suppose Memorial Day does me, days and weeks before the annual barrage of flag-waving platitudes. Recollections of ageless high school friends flood my senses during the flag-waving buildup, some alive as if they actually came home from Vietnam in one piece.

My best friend actually showed up at my front door in the dead of night, smiling as if he punked me…like old times. Imagine, for decades I thought those bone fragments, ceremoniously interred in real life, were his. We exchanged words, but ended up laughing, just before precious REM homeostasis splintered, again, in the dark. 

Daytime reveries and distractions are also heightened, triggered easily by misplaced guilt and moral injury or even a Stones track, but always entangled with a surge of aggressive commercialism, building to a crescendo with the laying of the last wreath on the last Monday in May. More affront than tribute, our country’s hypocritical remembrance is now on global display, and unavoidably an open wound to survivors and victims everywhere.

Ironically, President Truman, at the request of Congress, proclaimed Memorial Day, May 30, 1950, and each succeeding Memorial Day, a National Day of Prayer and Permanent Peace. In what might now seem more appropriate in an Onion article, every POTUS since then has followed suit. In an era of endless war, usable nukes and bloated Pentagon budgets, an official US holiday devoted to permanent peace could not ring more hollow, or be more hypocritical.  

Historian, author and Veteran activist Howard Zinn once wrote, “Memorial Day will be celebrated … by the usual betrayal of the dead, by the hypocritical patriotism of the politicians and contractors preparing for more wars, more graves to receive more flowers on future Memorial Days. The memory of the dead deserves a different dedication. To peace, to defiance of governments.”

Such a payback for our wars of choice is warranted since most of the fallen in my lifetime (read: “senselessly slaughtered") didn’t live long enough to even learn why they fought, when and where they fought. My warrior friend risked his life for his immediate family and his own father’s wartime legacy, a common theme during the LBJ/Nixon betrayal. Most – by no means, all – just trusted their government and an unbroken line of unbloodied patriots on Capitol Hill who continue to betray multi-generational legacies today. My own Congressional representatives carry on in that tradition, with unflinching support for every US weapon system and conflict since 9/11. 

Recently, the wife of a Vietnam veteran, in response to another Memorial Day platitude from a Congressional sycophant, wrote, “There hasn’t been a single war waged by the U.S. in my lifetime that really was about protecting our freedoms. Our freedoms are protected by our Constitution and they would be just fine if elected politicians like you stopped trying to take them away from us by criminalizing dissent and making it harder to vote.” So much more erudite than “Go f**k yourself.” 

On the heels of incinerating Japan and launching the Atomic Age, Truman certainly could have done worse than a proclamation for a National Day of Prayer and “permanent peace,” but someone’s God hasn’t been paying attention, or has absolutely no pull. Recent studies credit our prayerful nation with the responsibility, militarily or economically, for between 20 and 30 million deaths by wars and conflicts since WWII. While civilian casualties are incalculable, so far over 7,000 US service members have been killed "protecting our freedoms" in Global War on Terror war zones. Has there ever been more of a misnomer of late than "Post-War"?

Our aggressive warrior state will once again honor its war dead this week. Memorial Day cookouts – masks or no masks – and can’t-miss deals at Best Buy or Amazon will likely dominate streaming platforms. If we pay close attention, we might catch Biden’s first proclamation to unite for prayer and peace, more than likely another cut-and-paste version from 1950:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Insert Name Here, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, May __, 20__, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time during which people may unite in prayer.

While prayer and divine intervention might be overrated, some Americans may actually give peace a chance. They might still be hopeful, an Andy Dufresne kind of hopeful. As Andy put it, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

We can always hope.

The author of this piece is Gene Marx from Bellingham, Washington. Gene is a Vietnam veteran and former Naval Flight Officer aboard the USS Coral Sea in 1971-72. He is a past Secretary of the Veterans for Peace National Board of Directors and is currently the Communications Coordinator for VFP Chapter 111.