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Tuesday, May 29, 2007
(9:40 AM) | Stephen:
Memorializing The Dead

My wife and her mother took the kids to the swimming pool for Memorial Day. I mowed the lawn, trimmed all the bushes and worked on a changing table that we got at a garage sale. It's a dresser, really, with a couple of drawers and a small pantry-shaped space. It actually doesn't look like a changing table, now that the baby-style knobs for the drawers have been switched out for more traditional ones. I had to reinforce the bottoms of both drawers and clean it up, and we're going to put it in the kitchen for the added counter and cabinet space. At least until we're actually ready to build real cabinets in that part of the kitchen.

So we didn't do much to celebrate and/or reflect upon the dead, which puts us in the mainstream of Americans, though there is always some sort of surface attention payed to this aspect of the holiday, along with all the paeans to the summer movie, vacation and shopping season.

Growing up, I was taught that Memorial Day was a time to remember anyone who died, but it's actually a holiday commemorating this nation's war dead. When you add Veteran's and Independence Days, that makes three national holidays specifically given over to honoring and remembering American soldiers. Of course, for the last several years we are also exhorted to show our gratitude to American soldiers at Thanksgiving, and every news program at Christmas will tape messages to and from American soldiers stationed outside the USA. Never mind our diplomatic corps or other Americans who are not home at Christmas.

We are becoming consumed with this reverence for soldiers and militarism, and not only for the last few years. Even police officers and firefighters have been taken down from the lofty perches they occupied immediately after 9/11, replaced by - not by actual soldiers, but by the noble warriors that populate our political speeches, sermons and holiday celebrations.

When Memorial Day comes around, I do spend some time at least mentally thinking on the American soldier, something that my family has produced for quite some time. I have ancestors that fought in the Revolution, both sides of the Civil War, WWII and who served, though he didn't see combat, in the Korean War. As far as close family members, the generations skipped Vietnam. My father is the one who served during the Korean War. He was eighteen and noticing that some friends of his had been drafted, gone over to Korea and returned in coffins. Not wanting to be drafted into that situation he joined the Air Force (actually there's a funny story in all that about the Navy Reserves and a girl), which recognized his mechanical ability and quickly set him not only maintaining B-47s but training others - enlisted, officers - to do the same.

And it was this same man who made it pretty clear that he joined up because he had to, because it was either join, and quick, or end up with a gun in his hands, a pack on his back and a whole bunch of pissed-off Koreans pointing guns at him. There was no question that he would fulfill his duty, but it wasn't some noble calling, or romantic adventure. As his son I never got the idea put in my head that I needed to follow his footsteps or try seeking glory through the military.

While there have always been those with a romantic view of war, I suspect that the majority of soldiers, in all times and places, have been pretty much like my dad: people who fought because they had to, because some political authority, be it king, dictator or president, decided that the people of his nation had to take up arms against the people of another nation, either to expand territory and gain resources or defend allies, or perhaps a bit of both. This is the central truth of what it means to be a soldier, a reality that all governments seek to hide, but that our government and popular culture is especially zealous to obscure. Our soldiers are portrayed not as fellow citizens, but as this special class of selfless, ultra-patriotic near-saints who have all willingly joined the military in order to protect the rest of us from "evildoers" who "hate us for our freedoms."

Of course, if our soldiers all selflessly joined the military out of patriotism and a desire to make sacrifices for the rest of us, it makes it so much easier on us when they die, doesn't it? When we see a soldier hobbling along on a prosthetic leg, or a wedding picture of a horribly burned and disfigured young Marine and his wife, when we see the casualty figures in the newspaper, or the reports of the mess that was made of Walter Reed by the private company contracted by the Pentagon to take care of our wounded and sick, we are able to soothe our consciences with the comforting fiction peddled by our politicians and pundits.

When Halliburton serves our soldiers rotten food, when vets lose their jobs because of repeated and extended deployments, when the number of widows, of fatherless or motherless children, parents who outlive their children, siblings who bury little brothers and big sisters continues to grow and grow, when the little white crosses in our nation's cemeteries continue to proliferate, then the rest of us hide behind our comforting fictions, our pretty little myths that it's okay to abuse our soldiers, it's fine to refuse them a decent pay raise, it's perfectly acceptable to send them to die again, and again, and again for the same damn patch of ground, the same damn city, the same damn road to the airport outside Baghdad, because that's what our soldiers wanted.

The reality is that our soldiers are American citizens, men and women, old and young, noble, virtuous, disciplined and proud. And they are devious, child-abusers, criminals, drunks, rapists, just like the rest of us. The American soldier is no worse than any other American, and no better. Those of us who do not serve in the military should indeed be grateful, for such is service to and for the rest of us. But let's be grateful for what they actually do, and who they actually are. Let's show our gratitude by being far less willing to send our soldiers into harm's way - and let's face it, though the contempt shown for our soldiers by George Bush will probably never be exceeded or even approached by another President, others in that office have also shown that they don't understand the men and women of our armed forces to be men and women, citizens as deserving of the protection of the Executive Branch as any other. This has been a failing of both the Democrats and Republicans, even though the GOP is clearly the party that wishes to foster and reap the benefits of a jingoistic nationalism that makes abstractions of our fellow citizens in order to make the rest of us more amenable to their policies.

Today, in Iraq, American soldiers will die. We will see the headlines, read the stories. Perhaps one or more will die in a particularly interesting or heroic way - or in a way that can be manipulated by the Army into a heroic story, as with Pat Tillman - and will be celebrated and honored by name in our newspapers, on TV and by our politicians. But each one of these soldiers already fated to die, if given the choice between fame and idolization in death or obscurity in life, would gladly choose to remain unknown in order to live even one more day.

It is that choice which should be remembered and honored, not just on the last Monday in May, but each day, in all our nation's policies and by each one of us.

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