What is the purpose of Memorial Day, if not to remember? This Memorial Day weekend I am reading “The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers. In arresting prose, this Army veteran of the war in Iraq and National Book Award Finalist in 2012 tells the story of the friendship between Private Bartle and Private Murphy as they fight in Al Tafar, Iraq, struggling to stay alive.
In one scene, an imbedded reporter approaches a group of soldiers that includes Bartle and Murphy. He asks, “Tell me the essence, guys, I want to know the kind of rush you get.”
Murph tried to explain. He said, “It’s like a car accident, you know? That instant between knowing that its going to happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding around same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do (expletive deleted) about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not. It’s kind of like that,” he continued, “like that split second in the car wreck except for her it can last for (expletive deleted) days.” He paused. “Why don’t you come out with us and you can take point? I bet you’ll find out.”
The last question gives me pause this Memorial Day. I hear it directed at me and all the other Americans enjoying this long weekend of ocean breezes, mountain air, the lingering smell of charcoal and pork emanating from backyard grills, sun-kissed reddened skin after an afternoon swim in the lake, cold beverages on a warm night in the first days of summer. These are the associations we have with Memorial Day. Rarely do I pause to consider what it is I am called to remember.
I fear that I am too caught up in the cultural trappings of remembrance, which are often superficial and designed to elicit only a fleeting acknowledgement. At every hockey game in my city, the camera cuts to a man or woman in uniform in the stands and we all stand and cheer as the announcer tells us where he or she served, and we thank them for their service with our applause for a moment, and then the moment is gone. The same thing happens at baseball games, basketball games, and football games. The flag flies, the uniformed soldiers are put on display, we cheer from a distance, and then go back to our lives.
This is a good thing. I participate heartily. It is better than nothing, certainly better than the derision that greeted the soldiers making their way back from Vietnam. But we should be careful lest we think this momentary cheering, this game day display of patriotic fervor, can substitute for real remembrance or authentic patriotism.
When we stand at the hockey game, I hope we also stand with the veterans across our land who are unemployed at an embarrassing rate. I hope we stand with soldiers and their families who come home with missing limbs, damaged psyches, and troubled souls. I hope we stand in recognition that the rate of suicide among military personnel in our nation is at an all time high. I hope we stand in the determination that wars should be a last resort, and that the entire nation should be prepared to make the sacrifices war requires, and not just the young men and women we send. I hope we stand in spiritual solidarity with a world grown weary of war, longing for peace. And for those of us who claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace, I hope we stand in prayer that “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Memorial Day is a day to remember all those who lost their lives in service to our nation. It should be the kind of remembrance that gives rise to an informed citizenry; a people committed to policies that recognize the long- term consequences of war on the nation, especially those who fight; a people ready to respond by tending to the broken bodies, minds, and souls left in war’s wake; a people who follow up on public displays of tribute with private acts of mercy, solidarity, and generosity.
To do any less is to run the risk of standing at a safe distance from the men and women who serve and fight and die. It is to ask of them “What is the essence?” but refusing to “take point” with them. If our standing and cheering is to be seen as anything more than a temporary, feel-good display, it will be accompanied by the power of true remembrance. Perhaps we can be challenged anew to see beyond the superficial trappings that accompany this long weekend and dare to allow memory to inform action.
The day offers an invitation to fresh remembrance. May we all be inspired to “take point” with those whose memories we honor this Memorial Day.