Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day Ramble

This Memorial Day (or, as the TV folks have it, "Memorial Day weekend") finds a bunch of quasi-related and, as usual, semi-ambivalent thoughts bouncing around my head. Let's see what sort of shape we might give some of them...

There has been much in my earshot about the "meaning" of Memorial Day...a goodly portion of it just a little bit off-target. In particular, I seem to be hearing/seeing a fair number of "thank a veteran/thank a soldier" type exhortations...which is okay in general but seems to scream ignorance of the fact that Memorial Day is intended to honor the dead. We have Veterans Day to to honor those others who served in the military.

More than in other years, I'm hearing that Memorial Day is "supposed" to be about honoring military dead, not civilians. (Indeed, some of these comments have been downright militaristic! Hah--I make zee joke!) I'm always a little, let's say, curious when people start telling me what something is "supposed" to be. Case in point:

My son was playing at a local church's Memorial Day service yesterday--a nice service, although somewhat disturbingly secular and, of course completely pro-military. Now, as they say, don't get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for military people--especially now that we have a nephew in the Marine Corps and another working his way through Army ROTC; and my own brief flirtation with ROTC back in the day showed me two things: the military was not for me; and a lot of really great people enter that life because they want to do something good. But I maintain what I believe to be a healthy skepticism toward The Military, writ large. Military people, by and large, are worthy of high regard; The Military, like any other large and powerful institution, needs to be watched closely and critically. In much the same fashion, I have known at lot of good and great priests...but I keep a close eye on the institutional church!

Anyhow, the pastor at this church made a point--both during the service and during the previous day's run-through for same--that Memorial Day is not All Saints Day, and seemed to stop just short of suggesting that it was somehow wrong to be visiting the graves of non-military people on this occasion. (Despite which, I will be visiting my mother's grave in a little while.)

This got me to pondering on what Memorial Day is "supposed" to be, and I did a little research to refresh the little gray cells. As I thought I had remembered, Memorial Day's origins were "to honor Union soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery." [See "What the History of Memorial Day Teaches About Honoring the War Dead."] So if someone really wanted to be a strict constructionist, he could say that Memorial Day is supposed to be about honoring fallen Union soldiers, and that all of the uniforms from other wars that were prominent at the church service I attended yesterday, including the Korean War-era Army uniform my son wore, disrespected the fallen Union soldiers whom the day is supposed to honor.

But of course Memorial Day has changed, and expanded, over the decades. And that's my point. While I certainly have no objection to the focus of the day being on fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, I object strenuously to the suggestion that our memories should not also turn toward those who may never have worn a uniform, or who did but did not die in battle, and honor them as well. That to me is as foolish as saying we must never lay flowers on a dead soldier's grave except on Memorial Day. The idea that only those in uniform make sacrifices in defense of this country is narrow, self-serving, and wrong.

Along those lines, the guest preacher at this service, a retired military chaplain, naturally devoted much of his time to the sacrifice made by military people. No argument there, certainly: Even though he has so far been stateside, there's no question that my nephew has had to make sacrifices in order to serve in the Marine Corps. Anyone can see that. However, I think it important to keep in mind that he is in the military voluntarily; that is, he knew going in that he was going to make sacrifices, and he did so and continues to do so willingly. More significantly, he doesn't complain about it or otherwise make an issue of it, at least not in my earshot. If you're doing something because you want to do it, because you have a sense of duty or a desire to do good or it seems like "an adventure," as the Army ads used to say, then you accept the hardships and sacrifices that go with it.

(Ditto for someone who decides to go to medical school, or to become a priest or pastor: Yes, it's hard. Yes, you make sacrifices. Buck up, matey--this was your idea, and it's unseemly to whine about it.)

Anyhow, the guest preacher. He quoted something that stuck in my head, and I have spent some time this morning trying to track it down. He attributed it to a general of whom I'd never heard and, based on my Google experience of late date, seems not to have existed. I have found a similar quotation attributed to a Father Dennis O'Brien, USMC, as well as to Senator Zell Miller. So who knows who the real author is. But here's a version of the quotation that I found online, similar though not identical to the one I heard yesterday:

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Well, yes. And no. My objection to the above lies in the repeated use of the word not. The whole sentiment implies that only military people are defenders of freedom, only military people are patriots, only military people honor the flag and the country it represents. And that is patently untrue.

Further, it is untrue to assert that "the soldier" has "given" us our rights. Yes, through the decades, soldiers have fought for and defended these rights, but they are not the gifts of a benevolent military. Our rights and freedoms are "inalienable" and, in our secular theology, come from the Creator, not the soldier.

Nor are soldiers the only ones who work, sacrifice, and, yes, die, to defend these rights. A moment's reflection brings to mind any number of journalists who have been killed for their efforts to expose crime and corruption, to bring the truth to light; is it not fair to say that they have died in defense of freedom of the press? Is it not fair to say that the "campus organizers" who were shot dead at Kent State in 1970 died defending the "freedom to demonstrate"?

The point is this: We are all partners, civilians and military people, in defending these freedoms. Or should be. To consign that job solely to the military is wrong, insulting, and dangerous. It leads to a laziness from which no good can come--the idea that I don't have to be vigilant about my rights, because that's "the soldier's job." I don't have to do anything about crime in my neighborhood because that's "the cop's job." I don't have to do anything about the smoke coming from the house across the street because that's "the firefighter's job."

Not so. It's a shared responsibility. You don't need a uniform.

So, on this Memorial Day, let's honor not just the Union soldiers who died fighting slavery; let's not honor just those who have fallen while wearing a uniform; let's memorialize everyone everywhere who has lived and died defending liberty. That would be the highest honor.