Today is Memorial Day, a federal holiday in the United States that was established (originally as Decoration Day) as a day of remembrance for those military men and women who died in service to their nation. But for many of us in the U.S., this day has turned into a sort of second Veterans Day — that day in November set aside to honor all military veterans, dead and living.
Maybe there’s nothing much wrong with that. Holidays have a way of evolving over time. Just as Thanksgiving has come to mark the start of the holiday shopping season more than it is a day for giving thanks, so Memorial Day has morphed into a day of surface patriotism.
But this straying from its original purpose disturbs folks like Gary Thompson, who served in Vietnam and is featured in a recent Memorial Day story in the Newman (Ga.) Times-Herald. “Because of his concern about the loss of meaning for Memorial Day, this time of year he passes out copies of a 2002 statement by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, ‘Meaning of Memorial Day Distorted.’ He distributes the statement in clear plastic sleeves.
It reads: “Memorial Day is supposed to be a day to remember and honor the nation’s war dead. Lately, however, it has become a convenient day also to remember most everyone else. The media has fostered this trend by calling on people to remember their loved ones at a time set aside for those who died serving their country.
“Memorial Day must serve as a reminder only for our war dead. With so many groups being commemorated on Memorial Day, it becomes easy to lose sight of the real sacrifices made in war.”
It’s no surprise that we Americans have turned Memorial Day into an all-purpose celebration of tepid patriotism. After all, we’re a nation that has been at war for 11 years now, so that fact is not far from our minds. As Charles P. Pierce writes in an excellent piece for Esquire (Loving the Warrior, Hating the Wars: Our Memorial Daze), our nation displays support for our troops in many ways. But much of it rings hollow.
We let them get on planes ahead of us, with the elderly and the infirm and the toddlers, but we underfund hospital care and live quite comfortably with the notion that a lot of the functions of the military have been privatized. (Are we that long from Honor The Contractors ceremonies?) We pay tribute to them at ballgames, but send them into battle ill-prepared, and bring them home to decrepit facilities and heedless bureaucracies. We give them parades, but had to be blackjacked into giving them a “new G.I. Bill” that is but a pale shadow of the original one, which did no less than create the modern American middle class.
We are also a nation that seems blissfully unaware of what’s happening with our troops in Afghanistan. Thanks to the volunteer military (including reservists), we don’t have to worry about our sons and daughters getting drafted. Our nation as a whole has sacrificed little during the past 11 years of military action. Afghanistan is not beamed into our living room, as Vietnam was a generation ago. (The mass audience the TV networks relied on to watch those evening newscasts have disintegrated into a zillion fragmented niches. Even if there were regular reports from the front, who would be watching?)
To be patriotic on Memorial Day isn’t that tough. Just fly an American flag from your porch, or plant one in your yard, and call it done. Then pop open a cold one and fire up the grill.
But maybe we could all do a little bit more on this national holiday.
Maybe we could start by acknowledging the true purpose of Memorial Day, that it is a day of remembrance for those who died on the fields of war. Do you know anyone who died in battle? I do not. All of the military people I know are the survivors. Or were, as many of the older vets, including my dad, who served in World War II, have passed on.
But that does not mean I am not affected by the loss of life in battle. Last week, a young man from our community, who died in Afghanistan in the line of duty, was returned and laid to rest. PFC Richard L. McNulty III is one of more than 1, 800 U.S. troops to die in Afghanistan. In April, another young man from our area, Tyler Smith of Licking, Mo., also died in Afghanistan. Two young men from two small towns, where wars are as close as the kids next door. These two young men died serving their countries. We can argue all day about the merits of the war itself, but we cannot deny the fact that they did die in service to their nation. This day is set aside to remember them.
Beyond acknowledging the day’s true meaning, perhaps we could go a bit farther and reach out to those veterans (and active-duty military) we do know and thank them for their service. I know I’m now contradicting the point I made at the beginning of this ramble. But while the military are on our minds, maybe we could take a minute to say thanks before we forget about it and turn our attention to beer and barbecue.
Finally, maybe we could take a little time to educate ourselves on the issues our veterans face as they return to civilian life. You might start by reading this Newsweek piece on the increasing rate of suicide among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. “About 18 veterans kill themselves each day. Thousands from the current wars have already done so. In fact, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died by their own hand is now estimated to be greater than the number (6,460) who have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Some of these struggling veterans — those who have pondered suicide — are no doubt enrolled in our colleges and universities. Maybe it would be good if we knew a little bit about them.
* * *
Before I wrote this post, I was hoping to get to talk with someone in the higher ed PR or marketing field who had served in either Afghanistan, Iraq or even Kuwait (Desert Storm). I sent out a query to my Twitter network and, despite multiple retweets, I did not hear from a single veteran. This lack of response confirmed my suspicion that most of us in the higher ed marketing and PR field are not as directly connected to the military of today as were our colleagues of the past.