Happy Memorial Day. I used to really hate holidays — unless they were ones when people called me over to cook. To me, they were just days when the library wasn’t open and there wasn’t much news. But now, all days are pretty much the same for me. So it’s Memorial Day and that doesn’t really change anything. But Memorial Day has always been an exception in the sense that it is a serious holiday. As much as I may question the American war machine, I don’t question the sacrifice that people have made in the name of official government policy.
I’ve twice written about Memorial Day. The first time was, Remembering on Memorial Day. At that time, I said:
In general, the military is used by countries for immoral purposes, like accumulating resources and providing leaders with glory. Thus, it isn’t the military who we should despise but the country’s generally vile leaders. At the same time, I think it is a major mistake to pretend that we owe the military any greater acknowledgement than other public servants.
But this isn’t Veterans Day, it is Memorial Day. It is the day to honor those who died in our wars. Most of these people (one way or another) had no choice about serving. Regardless, they were all doing what our leaders said was the right thing to do. These people should be honored. My only wish is that we honored them by not thinking that every new war is a great idea. We should honor the dead by limited who we send to die in the future.
Last year, I wrote, Try to Be Better on Memorial Day. I think that it is worth quoting in total, because it sums up what I feel about this holiday — both good and bad:
It is the way of my people. We are not barbecuers. We do not like the Monday holidays. But if it is for a good cause, we bear it. The labor struggle is a good cause. The civil rights struggle is a good cause. And today is Memorial Day, and remembering the men and women we sent to their deaths, is a good cause. I like to think of Memorial Day as a day of remembrance of all who have died pointlessly. And before people jump on me, war is a pointless activity. It doesn’t matter that there are times when good people are forced to fight wars. World War II was a righteous war because of the Nazis and others, but certainly it would have been better if the Nazis had not risen and forced the world into war.
Let’s think about the “Good War” for a moment. As many as 25 million soldiers died during it. Of those, 5 million died while in POW camps. As many as 55 million civilians died, roughly half of them from disease and famine. What a waste. I can’t help but think of us as two colonies of ants, because the individuals on either side are pretty much indistinguishable. The treatment of Jews and other “undesirables” by the Nazis was inhuman, but other than being more concentrated it was no different than what we did to the native peoples of America. The Japanese treatment of the Chinese was terrible, but did it really justify our systematic destruction of the Japanese civilian population? Did it justify dropping two atomic bombs on them?
Again and again, I come back to 95/5 principle: 95% of the population just wants to live their lives and have their Memorial Day barbecues (or in the case of my people, write maudlin essays about the tragedy of war); and 5% of the people want something else — I don’t even know what it is anymore. It’s mostly power, I suppose. But once these things are set in motion, there seems no way to stop it. Everyone has pitchforks and torches, and in the end no one is quite sure why.
Unlike Memorial Day that I rather like, I really dislike Veteran’s Day. The whole thing reminds me of the bumper sticker, “If You Like Your Freedom Thank a Vet.” Sadly, the military is necessary. But the last even remotely existential threat we faced was 75 years ago. And sure, we should thank those vets. But just as much, we should thank the vets of the Soviet Union — over 11 million of whom died to protect our freedom.
But if people want to see Memorial Day as a nationalist holiday, I’m against that. The last thing we need is to expand the holiday — to make it about even more dead soldiers. The sacrifice that these men and women gave is not “cool.” It is not something to be celebrated. It is something to be honored, because as a species, we are extremely flawed. Above all, it should be a day that we, as a species, ask forgiveness from those we’ve murdered in what were almost always fights over natural resources. Very much like this:
On this Memorial Day, let’s try to be better than the chimpanzees.
So there you go. Let’s honor and remember our military dead. And let’s try to do better from now on. It is not a matter of better technology. It is a matter of better morality. Happy Memorial Day.