Memorial Day, originally known as “Decoration Day,” was created in the aftermath of the Civil War as a day to honor the memory and sacrifice of Union soldiers who had died in battle. It later broadened to include the theme of reconciliation, honoring Confederate soldiers as well; and through the years has become a day to remember all U.S. military personnel who have died in combat.
Increasingly, it evolved from simply decorating the graves and solemn memorialization of those killed, to opportunities for flag-waving, nationalistic displays with parades, marching bands and political speeches. Today, it has become a perversion of its original intent in two ways.
Nearly all American holidays have been transformed from their original intents and into opportunities for economic profits, and Memorial Day is arguably the best example. Memorial Day has turned into Memorial Day weekend—a time for shopping, watching the Indianapolis 500, and kicking-off the summer.
Adding superficial, “patriotic” gimmickry to advertising must work because it is ubiquitous. In this ad,the images on the left are saluting with the wrong hand—but accuracy doesn’t matter as long as it’s red, white and blue; advertisers know what works with American consumers.
In another example of patriotic pandering, Heinz has outdone itself in their appreciation for veterans…nothing says “thank you” quite the way condiments do. The truly patriotic American will be using nothing but Heinz ketchup at their Memorial Day BBQ!
Perversion #2—American Exceptionalism
This perversion of Memorial Day is typified by the glorification of war and everyone who participated in it. God is always on our side (which means we are always right). Politicians try to out do each other in their effusive thanks for the military, and refer to everyone who has ever worn a military uniform as a hero. God, guns and glory are wrapped up in the flag, and the whole package is given the credit for all that is good: liberty, freedom, justice, and the American Way of Life. Perversion #2 is of much more concern because of the ideology that it represents.
It is very dangerous when the people of a nation believes it can do no wrong; that it can operate outside of international law; and that God is on its side. Because when a nation is so confident in its righteousness, it loses any capacity for objectivity. On Memorial Day we remember the American war dead, but never question the necessity for the battle. We cannot bear to think that American lives lost in war might have been in vain, and so we continue to insist that we are on the side of right. We never second guess our country, because if we come to the realization that the war is wrong, for whatever reason, then we have to accept responsibility for all of those killed in our wars—not just our own.
In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, that seems way outside the capacity of the American public, who are only now starting to question whether the sacrifice of more U.S. troops is “worth it.” We have not even thought to question whether the sacrifice of Iraqis and Afghans is worth it—more than 90% of whom were non-combatants. The media is starting to describe us as “war weary” but we haven’t the slightest clue.
On this Memorial Day, Veterans For Peace asks you to mourn not only for Americans killed in battle, but also for those killed by Americans in battle. We ask you to be willing to accept the fact that these war deaths did not have to happen—that they are actually in vain. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died in American wars of aggression. That is a tragedy and is a truth that must be accepted and for which we must take responsibility.
Leah Bolger spent 20 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy and retired in 2000 at the rank of Commander. She is currently a full-time peace activist and serves as the National President of Veterans For Peace. firstname.lastname@example.org.