Memorial Day. There must be millions of blogs, newspaper articles, documentaries, and cable specials being produced this weekend to bring attention to some aspect of the military’s dead. I’d say, if one American spends 10 minutes this weekend watching an ABC special on American service members who have died in Afghanistan, that’s a win for consciousness raising. But as John Farmer recently wrote in The Star Ledger, Memorial Day isn’t what it used to be.
Contrary to John, I’m not interested in parades and fan fare celebrating the heroics of our fallen warriors. Nor would I be satisfied with Americans just observing a moment of silence. I think there’s more to Memorial Day than even I have contemplated in the past. So what will I be reflecting on today?
Ronald Reagan once said at the Moscow State University (1988), “Freedom is the right to question and change the established ways of doing things.” President Reagan rightly draws our attention to the theme of freedom. For it is in the name of freedom, we are told, that women and men in uniform die. It is also in the name of freedom, that we are challenged to question this line of thinking.
Oh, how we glamorize violence as patriotic. Ask most who have worn the uniform and they would much rather have their fallen comrades alive than celebrated as patriotic. And yet we all grasp to make meaning of these deaths in some assessable way. We want to attribute it to some higher cause, some transcendent mission that we can point to and say, yes, that is why my son is dead; that is why my niece is buried in Arlington; yes, that’s why my children will never know how much their father loved them. The truth may be that defending our freedom isn’t what folks in Afghanistan or Iraq died for and there may not be a comforting way to make meaning of their death. If that is the case, what do we do with our grief, our confusion?
I say let us celebrate their willingness to sacrifice their life for country. I believe the courage to do that, to put one’s life on the line for a fellow soldier or Marine is honorable. They have earned our praise. Yet, let us also challenge the idea that death, war, and violence are just a part of life. Let us challenge the idea that we will always have to send young fathers and mothers off to die in foreign countries. Let us honor the fallen by being critical citizens. Let us celebrate Memorial Day by questioning the policies that force our fellow Americans into combat. Let us, above all else, reflect on how we are to enhance the life of all people, preserve it, not destroy it. This is what I will be meditating on throughout these hours of memorial.
Today, weep for those we have lost. Today, connect with someone who remembers the precious moments of a fallen Marine’s life before and during their military service. Today, question the meaning of their sacrifice. And please, for the love of all things sacred, don’t just be a mindless consumer and treat this holiday like another weekend for great sales!
Greg Matos is a former Marine Sergeant and author of “Shattered Glass: The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard.” He is the recipient of the Bronze Star with Combat Valor and Department of State’s Award for Heroism. Visit: GregMatos.com.