Memorial Day… I think a mostly misunderstood day; thank God for FB memes, Twitter wars and ugly politics to remind us the toll of conflict is the lives of our own. In the fields of Gettysburg, jungles of Vietnam, Normandy, or the sands of the Mid-East our brothers and sisters have died in uniform – a violent end to all they were and would have been – yet we casually mouth words like freedom and sacrifice, as if these could somehow capture the magnitude of their loss.
Many years ago, I wrote a piece on Memorial Day – quoting the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and General Douglas MacArthur; oh, it was lofty for sure with words like, courage, honor, duty, loyalty… and those men had no doubt earned the right to pen those words, but had I? I am not sure there is an adequate answer to that for what is the life of one man, a thousand men, a million men worth – does “duty, honor, country,” cover it? Is that the price of freedom, the price of furthering this idea we call democracy, the price of the perpetual struggle against “evil” and are a few penned words reverent enough?
I don’t have any real answers, it’s simply what we ask – demand of those that wear the uniform whether they volunteered, were conscripted or simply believed it was the best option in a world of limited opportunity. However, they arrived at the last moment of their existence it transcended race, ethnicity, gender, orientation and ideology – maybe that’s the real lesson – in spite of all the ways we choose to separate ourselves; those we have lost share a commonality that provides a glimpse of a more perfect Union we should all aspire to – remember to remember.
I’ve heard all the arguments, the passionate defenses, and angry protestations… and I agree with all of them, every one… but I agree because I believe this country, we as a people have it within us to collectively define, embrace, and demonstrate the best humanity has to offer not in spite of our differences but because of them.
You can say the flag is a symbol of oppression, freedom, colonialism, democracy… and you would be right because we have the choice to define it in the way that represents our present circumstance and understanding – not everyone’s just our own.
For me though this isn’t a symbol from the past, it isn’t owned by a particular ideology, it doesn’t represent a singular belief system – no it is the very tapestry of this land – those stars represent all of us… every beautiful square foot of this country from the concrete jungles to the snow covered peaks – and those stripes… they were where we started not where we are ending.
That flag is big enough to be knelt in front of, to be saluted, to be burnt, and to be draped across the box of someone you know, someone that lived in your town, on your street, or in the bedroom down the hall.
So no matter your ethnicity, color, creed – if you just got here or if you were here before the rest of us, we all have a choice, we can accept the same old tired arguments that aim to separate and strive to keep us from our full potential or we can choose to make an individual choice about the type of person we want to be and by extension the type of nation we will become.
Do you believe that flag is big enough to cover all of us… because if you don’t then it isn’t the man kneeling on the sidelines, the millennial protesting in the streets, the water protectors at Standing Rock, the men and women that work shoulder to shoulder every day, the immigrant searching for a better life, or those that wear the badge on their chest or flag on their shoulder that are the problem…
Just one man’s opinion…
On Memorial Day I am always reminded of our men in uniform and how cavalier we tend to be about the potential sacrifice they face everyday. I think back to the tales my father and grandfather shared with me about their experiences in WWII. I was always fascinated by their differing perspectives: my father joined the Navy at 17 and served aboard a submarine in the Pacific theater and my grandfather was a Colonel in the Air Force stationed in Panama during WWII. As different as their military service was they shared the common bond of having lost men they knew and served with; as a young boy I didn’t really understand the significance of this sacrifice and the impact it had on them.
In the many years since, I have often wondered if we, as not only individuals but also, as a society truly understand the sacrifice we expect of our military and what Memorial Day actually signifies. I know for myself – as a young man still in high school – I had the good fortune to read a speech by Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed to the West Point cadets in 1962. I am still stirred by his words and the impact they had on me and even more how they bring a substance and gravity to the memories of my father and grandfather. I imagine I can hear these words echoing as he spoke: “…It is the story of the American man at arms… His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast… I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips, the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light…”
I find it impossible to read these words and not take a moment to reflect on those who have laid down their lives for this country and the ideals we hold dear. Whether it be 200+ years ago in a war for self determination or yesterday somewhere far from home – it is incumbent upon us to honor the sacrifice of our fallen. I recently re-read the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, from a speech he gave in 1884 at a Memorial Day dinner, remember this wasn’t shortly after some world wide conflict of good vs evil but a war among ourselves brother against brother… he said “But as surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead…where the ghosts sit at the table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.” I believe he was speaking about more than just their memories he was reminding us that on this day of all days it is their sacrifice we not only honor but remember lest we forget the mighty toll of our conflicts and vast responsibility it creates.
So my friends as you gather together for that afternoon BBQ, the morning round of golf, or whatever activity you may have planned for that “end of spring extra day off from work Monday,” let us take even just a brief moment to honor and remember those who embraced “Duty, Honor, Country” as more than just a slogan.
Photo used courtesy of Ryan Vizzions www.amodernghost.com
Author’s Note: I wrote this in August of 2017 almost three years ago, in light of today’s protest of “stay at home” orders it seems chilling prophetic… Mainstream America is having it’s “Standing Rock” moment – if you don’t see the irony you simply aren’t paying attention – Welcome to the future…
I keep coming back to this picture… I am not the “activist” type, I’m an advocate of working within the system to achieve change where possible and I support the need for law enforcement in a civil society. If I am honest with myself my activism is somewhat pedestrian, I write books with a social commentary, I’m active on social media and I vote; but do I leave the comfort of my desk, my office, my car, will you see me on the nightly news holding a placard, being sprayed by a water cannon, rinsing tear gas from my eyes – the simple answer is no.
This admission doesn’t change that I am fervently supportive of equality, I stand against oppression and have no tolerance for discrimination in any form. But the more I think about what this picture represents the more I believe it really transcends or maybe encompasses all of these. You see there is something uniquely disturbing about the blatant militarization of a domestic police force. I have heard all the arguments about “arming” up to combat the gangs, drug cartels, terror cells etcetera, and I understand all of it – but the reality is this has become the status quo – the first response posture not the strategy of last resort. Read more ›