Whenever a culture collectively decides to dedicate time to the celebration or memory of a thing, an opportunity emerges to evaluate the culture’s ideology. We can look to history and anthropology for examples of this. For instance, we know that in ancient Rome, one of the biggest celebrations possible was the military “Triumph.” A triumph was the highest honor a Roman general could receive, and they did not happen too often. The whole city turned out for a parade, gladiatorial games, and festivities to honor the accomplishment of the general, which typically would be a once in a lifetime military victory, such as Scipio Africanus’ defeat of Hannibal in the Carthaginian Wars, or Julius Caesar’s victories (re: genocidal campaign) against the Gaulic tribes. This tells us Romans valued war, honor, heroism, and, did I mention war? In fact, we can trace the changes in the ideological significance of the Triumph throughout Roman history. As the Republic fell and Rome became an empire, Triumphs became more common — and therefore less significant. They shifted from a way for the community to honor a beloved general and towards a way for the emperor to honor himself…Far less exciting.
Another example might be found in the modern Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. In the U.S., Halloween typically consists of self-gratifying parties, candy, and horror thrills; but, in Mexico, like in the Disney movie Coco, Dia de los Muertos reveals to us that Mexican culture significantly values its ancestors, and considers their memory and legacy almost as significant as the life of the person itself.
There is nothing right or wrong about any of these celebrations necessarily, but we can analyze them to uncover the values of the culture that drive them. I would like to do the same for Memorial Day.
Before we start, Memorial Day specifically honors soldiers that have been killed during active duty. Memorial Day is obviously different than Veterans Day, which is specifically meant to honor veterans who have served in the U.S. military in the past. It is hard to critique Veterans Day because many veterans are family and friends of ours, but it is perhaps even harder to critique Memorial Day because to do so, in the minds of many people, is to insult fallen soldiers, or imply their sacrifice was meaningless, if not harmful. It is important to keep this in mind moving forward. If you know me, you probably know I have nothing positive to say about Memorial Day, but I will attempt to frame this critique graciously and respectfully because veterans are, indeed, real people. In fact, I propose they are the most tragic of victims of this ideology.
The Origins of Memorial Day
The origin of Memorial Day is a contested historical subject, but there are a few things we know. It was signed into law as an official holiday by President Johnson in 1971, but it was celebrated long before that, perhaps dating back to the Civil War. Back then it was known as “Decoration Day,” because women in the South would place decorations of flags and flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers (sometimes Confederate and Union soldiers). Eventually the Union picked up the practice, and it became a more unified and formal American tradition after the horrors of World War I. But many historians argue the origin of Memorial Day is the honoring of Confederate soldiers.
I kind of love the irony of this. The origin of Memorial Day is in the honoring of soldiers who died fighting on the wrong, losing side of a useless and unethical war. They died defending their “freedom” (to enslave people) and the “liberty” (of their empire). In the end, they lost it all anyway. The roots of such ideologies are hard to rip out; much of the South still refers to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression,” as if to paint the Union as the baddies, preserving the mystique of liberty and the dignity of the soldiers who fought to maintain their economic primacy, which depended on the oppression and exploitation of others. As we will see, I believe the modern manifestation of Memorial Day is exactly the same — we struggle to assign meaning to the deaths of our fellow citizens when there is none to be found.
Memorial Day Today
This weekend, for Memorial Day, the U.S. Army tweeted out “How has serving impacted you?” presumably to crowdsource some propaganda about how the military builds character, career, and friendship. The Army’s twitter account was ‘ratioed,’ as responses flooded in about the horrors of combat and adjusting to civilian life afterwards. Here are a few screen caps I took of the responses:
One comment summarized the debacle nicely:
Fortunately, this is a positive sign that veterans and their families are beginning to see through the militaristic ideology of patriotism. What we put them through is wrong.
The reality is that the U.S. maintains an incredibly wasteful standing military. The stats have been trotted out before, but here are a few:
The U.S. military is bigger than the next seven biggest militaries in the world — combined; additionally, nearly all of those countries are allies. The U.S. spends nearly half of its discretionary federal budget on the military — almost $700 billion dollars each year. Imagine what else half of the federal budget could be used for — healthcare, mass transit, renewable energy subsidies, education and student loan forgiveness… A society’s wallet shows where its priorities are, and we spend nearly half of ours on defense.
Let’s talk about “defense.” Why does the U.S. need such a large military anyway? The patriotic ideology would use fear to convince us that we are constantly in danger of being attacked, but the U.S. has not fought a defensive war since WWII, which can just barely be considered a defensive war, and I might argue that perhaps the U.S. has never fought a truly defensive war, and has certainly never fought a war even close to meeting the criteria of Just War Theory, including the Revolution. All of our wars, conflicts, or military interventions are offensive, colonial, and imperial. Recruiters bribe young men and women with adventure, honor, a GI bill, and perhaps subsidized college tuition (imagine that) to be shipped all over the world in order to protect “American interests.” We have military presence in 150 out of 190 countries in the world. We have overthrown countless governments when it is convenient, and ignored countless humanitarian crises when the perpetrating government gives us good deals on oil and allows us to use their country as a military base (re: Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Israel, Iraq for a time). The reason we need such a large military is because we have interests all over the world upon which our economy depends. We need oil, diamonds, rubber, exotic foods year-round, slave-wage laborers, and access to ports. Not to mention the military industrial complex; if we stop producing planes, Humvees, tanks, and ships, many Americans will actually find themselves unemployed. We need to maintain a large military because we need to maintain a large military.
Justifying the Sacrifice
So finally, this brings us back to Memorial Day. I have argued briefly, though I hope somewhat convincingly, that the U.S. sends its soldiers to other parts of the world to fight offensively, in order to protect American economic interests. But in order to justify the obvious cost of this, we cannot just say that. We must paint a facade of dignity, honor, sacrifice, liberty, and freedom on our empire. So we say things like “soldiers fought for your freedom,” or “soldiers fought for your right to [vote, speak freely, work, etc.].” No doubt someone will comment on this, “Soldiers died for your right to say this, so you don’t have the right to say it!” We have built an entire ideology of “freedom” and “patriotism” around the military, saying “soldiers fight for our freedom,” as if invading Vietnam or Iraq was in defense of our freedom. It was in defense of our economic primacy…but Iraq never threatened our freedom. Indeed, this language goes all the way back to the American Revolution. “Give me liberty or give me death,” they shouted, as they fought for liberty from…taxes on their tea. (The American Revolution had its reasons, and the resulting government is a marvel of human history, but it was largely an aristocratic war motivated by economics. If this is the first time you’ve heard someone argue thus, I would suggest the ideology of patriotism has worked very well). Who is going to argue with freedom or liberty? Who is going to criticize such a sacrifice? As in the words of Noam Chomsky:
“The point of public relations slogans like ‘Support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything… That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.”
As I said at the outset, the big concern with daring to criticize Memorial Day is that it implies that one’s dad’s, son’s, sister’s, or spouse’s sacrifice was pointless, that they died for nothing. (A lot of this ideology can also be translated into the debate surrounding law enforcement. Another time, perhaps). I will propose that the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for anyone is honorable, even Nazi and Confederate soldiers who died because they genuinely believed they were on the right side, or died saving the man next to them ought to be honored. Although the reasons we send people to combat are complex, massive, and often corrupt, casualties oftentimes occur protecting the soldier next to them, regardless of how or why they are in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq in the first place, and there is nothing dishonorable or pointless about that.
However, the worst possible thing we can do for our soldiers, country, and world is to deny the reality of American militarism. Making up propaganda and ideologies that justify our soldiers’ sacrifices is not helpful to them — it only perpetuates the injustice of war. We must recognize, as many of the folks on Twitter have, that on a geopolitical scale, our soldiers actually are dying in vain. They die to preserve an unsustainable, unethical, and oppressive imperial machine, and we have to stop asking them to do it.
We should honor our friends and family that have served, we should take care of them when they get home, with free education, occupational therapy, free physical and mental healthcare, and any other support they need. But most importantly, the best way to honor our soldiers is to stop killing them.