Memorial Day has different meanings to different people: a day to remember fallen service people, a day to relax in the sun with a barbecue and a beer going, even a day to remember everyone you have known and loved who has passed on. I’ve heard instances where firefighters and police officers have horned in on the holiday. My ex was derisive when I told her that today is my version of Thanksgiving, but I stand by that. Whatever Memorial Day means to you, it should not be a political statement.
This holiday got its start in 1868 when General John Logan decreed a day of remembrance of those who died in the Civil War. President Grant made it official. Originally called Decoration Day, it was renamed Memorial Day by act of Congress in 1971. Throughout the last 150 years, people have incorporated those lost in various military campaigns into the general reverance for those who have served honorably in advancement of American policy. A poem by Moina Michael has always struck me well:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
Without getting too preachy, I think this is an important day to stop and remember the people that have been lost over time. I was scrolling through Facebook earlier this morning and found a status update by a friend of mine who was remarking on the juxtaposition of remembering our dead with endorsing war the wars in which they died. That’s the wrong way to see things. I thought his update was thoughtful and respectful, but it prompted a comment by someone saying that they didn’t observe the day because they’ve been against every military action by this country since Vietnam. Coming from a military family, I’ve long had an understanding of the difference between the requirements of military service versus servicemen’s personal politics. We’re fortunate to live in a country where the military doesn’t set its own missions. There will never be a military coup in this country because a civilian government dictates where and what and when, and the military salutes and carries out difficult tasks. Sometimes they do it without adequate logistics, sometimes they do it without a clear objective, sometimes (as in Vietnam) they do it without even a basic sense of respect from the people in whose name they are asked to go halfway around the world and risk their lives. As Lord Tennyson wrote, “Ours is not to reason why, ours but to do and die.”
The key to today is to separate the mission from the men and women asked to perform it. Our military in Iraq, Korea, Afghanistan, Okinawa, Turkey, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Germany and a dozen other spots around the globe are our countrymen. Some are career soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines; most are our teachers, grocery clerks, attorneys and engineers when their reserve units are called up, or become those people after their period of service. They are our neighbors and family members.
The secret, and it shouldn’t be a secret, is understanding that respecting people willing to put themselves in harm’s way has nothing to do with endorsing the actions they are asked to carry out. Atrocities are wrong and war criminals should be prosecuted like any other criminals should be; any group of people is going to contain bad elements that have to be controlled. At the same time, wanting to bring our troops home, to get them out of needless danger, is “supporting” our troops. Just as we should respect the office of the President even if we don’t respect the holder, we shouldn’t dismiss the needs of our troops or withhold the respect that is their due.
There are those who are choosing this weekend to make political hay over the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Cynically, I wonder whether the real opposition to a change in policy is a real understanding that the military has always been a frontier for social change in this country. Long before Jim Crow laws were defeated, our military was an effective and desegregated fighting force. Policy is dictated to the military. They salute and carry out their mission – our military is incredibly well-trained and versatile, and they have perservered through much worse than having a fairy in the trenches. Young men and women pass through the military and carry the lessons learned over to the rest of their lives. The end of a heterosexual-only military could be a death knell for bigotry toward gays and lesbians across society. I’m a fan of the idea. I find myself unable to resist adding some commentary here … without gays in the military, where are interesting new patterns of camoflage going to come from?