Some thoughts on what Memorial Day means and whether we can differentiate between commemorating the sacrifice of soldiers and supporting wrong or unjust wars.
Monday was Memorial Day here in the US. It commemorates US soldiers who died in service of their country over the years. Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day after the US Civil War.
Now, some people say that Memorial Day is for commemorating all US servicemen (and women) and not for discussing the wisdom (or folly) of specific wars. Both George Bush and Kieran Healy disagree. Let’s hear Kieran.
America has a fine tradition of military service and sacrifice. The best way to respect and honor it is to reflect on what it means to serve and perhaps die for your country, and to think about the value of the cause, the power of the reasons, and the strength of the evidence you would need before asking someone—someone like your brother, or friend, or neighbor—to take on that burden. That so many are willing to serve is a testament to the character of ordinary people in the United States. That these people have, in recent years, shouldered the burden of service for the sake of a badly planned war begun in the name of an ill-defined cause, on the thinnest of pretexts, and with the most flimsy sort of evidence, is an indictment of the country’s political class.
Is it “politically partisan” to point out that this ultimate sacrifice of a soldier, that of his/her life, should only be undertaken for the best of causes? I don’t think so. Jim Henley agrees.
Inadequate thanks are the only kind we have to offer those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” in service to the country. We the living, and we civilians, should be mindful that every one of those deaths betokened an awesome act of trust – trust that, when they made themselves into weapons, they would be wielded wisely; trust that, when they lay down their lives, we would use that coin for worthy purchase. As a nation we have only ever fitfully met the standards implicit in those deaths. Let us be humble, and let us try harder.
As Jim says, we have “only fitfully met the standards” required for the death of our soldiers. The fault for that, in general, lies with us as a people and our leaders and not the individual soldier.
Both Jim and Kieran separate supporting the soldiers from supporting the war. This works okay to an extent. But we are only human. Lots of times we conflate the two. There are lots of people who think supporting the troops means supporting the war they are part of. Memorial Day’s commemoration of our troops can lead to such problems, as Frederick Douglass pointed out a long time ago about Decoration Day.
Good, wise, and generous men at the North, in power and out of power, for whose good intentions and patriotism we must all have the highest respect, doubt the wisdom of observing this memorial day, and would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and on loyal graves. This sentiment is noble and generous, worthy of all honor as such; but it is only a sentiment after all, and must submit to its own rational limitations. There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while to-day we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason. If the observance of this memorial day has any apology, office, or significance, it is derived from the moral character of the war, from the far-reaching, unchangeable, and eternal principles in dispute, and for which our sons and brothers encountered hardship, danger, and death.
Douglass’s thoughts are much closer to mine in this respect. For men are remembered by their acts and I am not sure how one can commemorate a Confederate soldier without remembering that he fought on the wrong side. Not all wars have a wrong and a right side, but when they do, how can we not be partial to the right one? How can we appreciate the sacrifice of a soldier to a state that wanted to perpetuate slavery, or oppress a people? Yes, I hear you say that it was not the soldier’s fault and the soldier fought for his home and his honor, and I might even agree but ultimately that soldier fought for the wrong cause.
When we are talking of the US Civil War, we at least are looking at one nation. So people probably don’t have much difficulty commemorating both sides. However, can we commemorate Iraqi soldiers under Saddam? German soldiers under the Kaiser? Japanese soldiers under the emperor? (Yes, I am trying to avoid Godwin’s law here.) As a Pakistani, should I commemorate the tribal lashkars sent to “liberate” Kashmir in 1947 but who went on a looting rampage there? How about the Pakistani soldiers who killed and raped so many Bengalis in the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971? Or even the Bangladeshi irregulars Mukti Bahini? Or should I celebrate the soldiers who followed their army chiefs in taking over the country multiple times?
In my mind, separating the cause from the fighter isn’t completely possible. Yes, I realize that modern armies are made up of professionals. And that soldiers do not really have much choice in such matters. I also appreciate their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the nation. And I do not blame the soldiers for a war I do not like, I blame political leaders and in a democracy the people as well. As Jim points out
We are well aware of the history (or legend) of the US’s last major peace movement, the Viet Nam War one, and how a critical mass of it blamed the soldiers for the war, ostracizing them, calling them “baby-killers,” holding them responsible for the decisions of the political leadership and, in po-mo terms, defining the soldiers as “Other.”
that was not a good thing to do.
Ultimately, it seems to me that the act of commemoration is defined by nationalism. You commemorate the sacrifice of your soldiers. And that is where it becomes difficult for me since I am not exactly a nationalist. In fact, most people would consider me averse to nationalism whether it be Pakistani nationalism or American.