Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tragedy and Remembrance

I've had a lot of good conversations over the weekend around Memorial Day. I've written about the struggle between opposing war and supporting people here and here. What I've been thinking about this weekend is slightly different, though.

Setting aside nationalism, which I originally thought was central to my unease, I've come to realize, through healthy conversation and a lot of pondering, that it really stems from how positive and joyful these celebrations tend to be. There's almost no recognition of the horror of death, of loss or pain - the day, at least from my perspective, tends to be one of joyful celebration. We trot out the tropes and patriotic one liners that certainly feel more at home on July 4th - really, it's like we end up with another Independence Day and that's what's a bit unsettling.

Memorial Day is a uniquely US occasion. Yes, most countries have a Remembrance Day of some kind, but it's more associate with our Veterans Day (celebrated on November 11th, the end of WWI). We wound up with two holidays - one commemorating war dead and another celebrating ALL veterans, living or dead - by accident, really. Memorial Day, formerly Decoration Day, was a long-standing tradition in both the North and South, marking the graves of Civil War soldiers. In fact, Union and Confederate competing celebrations (and dates) lasted until the early 1967 (and a few persist today).

It would really make sense to celebrate everything together on November 11th, with the rest of the world, but, probably rightly, Congress didn't want to eliminate long-held traditions. It does create a bit of a dichotomy, though, with a specific holiday to honor the dead - and there are numerous websites dedicated to making sure people understand the difference. This certainly adds to the confusion about how we celebrate Memorial Day.

It's further complicated because Memorial Day has become the de facto start of summer - people want to be outside enjoying the warm weather. This is also compounded because we went a whole generation without war dead - from Vietnam to just after 9/11 (the first gulf war had just 148 US casualties), taking away some of the personal connection to tragedy that might otherwise go along with the day.

That really gets closer to my point, here. Our holidays of remembrance don't look like those in England or Holland or France, I think, partly because the real cost of war is simply unknown to most of us. Even with the recent wars and all the pain, trauma, and loss suffered, less than 1% of the US population has been deployed - obviously a far smaller percentage has died. There are just very few people with real personal connections to the people remembered on Memorial Day.

Unlike those countries mentioned above, we've also not seen tragedy or the destruction of war on our soil since 1865. Hawaii was not even a State when Pearl Harbor happened and it's distance has always been a hindrance to the nation fully accepting it as something other than a vacation destination. We haven't seen bombed out building next door or sent children to the country for their own safety. We've never been occupied. And although most of the people who remember those things in Europe are aged or dead, those memories remain real and vivid - something we've long forgotten.

I suppose all of this might serve to reinforce the more celebratory tone most often taken on Memorial Day - and I'm willing to accept that conclusion as valid. We might also point to the natural human desire to avoid grief. It's just natural to make something sad into something happy. At the same time, whether it matters to you or not, it was important for me to understand why the day and the celebration seem so at odds - and I think this is it.

What struck me was the way I see the few people I know who lost loved ones recently do Memorial Day. There were a few choice pictures of a flag-marked gravestone, but mostly remembrances of a son and brother as a little boy. The celebration of Memorial Day for those folks was no different than any other family's anniversary of tragedy - they just have two days a year to do it, instead of just one. In substance, there is no real difference from the remembrance of any lost loved one.

You and I might disagree to the extent we can or should make our national holidays about broader themes (freedom, democracy, patriotism, etc), but no matter how you side on something like that, this day really should be about families mourning loss.

Yes, we're quick to justify those losses with statements about what they died for, but some families who lost loved ones don't feel they died for "good reasons." You know what, I don't think anyone ever feels like a parent or child or sibling dies for a "good reason." We can say they lived a long life or served faithfully a higher calling, but that doesn't actually change our grief. I don't think I'd mourn my wife's death any less if she died saving a child from a burning building than I would if she were in a car accident.

Loss is loss and despite our natural inclination to avoid pain and grief, they're good for us. They're healthy. They're not good or healthy places to spend our lives, but a couple days a year of mourning can be really beneficial.

In the end I think I react negatively to this celebration of America - "Woo Hoo, we're the best, let's set off fireworks and throw a party," for the same reason I react negatively to people who don't cry at a funeral. I get having a picnic and inviting the neighbors as a way to enjoy the lifestyle provided by the sacrifice of soldiers, and I'm all for having a good time in that effort, it just feels like we too easily gloss over the real horrors of war and the real tragedy of death.

It is an honorable thing to be willing to die for something you believe in. It's a dedication worth honoring even if I don't always share a commitment to the same things. Of course my perspective of nations and war colors my perceptions of any holiday that deals with them, but this is also true if you hold a position on the other side of the spectrum from me. I think it's important for all of us to see beyond those discussions - at least on Memorial Day - and let it be a time of sober celebration.

People have lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, and friends to war - those people were loved and of immeasurable value. We may not have known any of them or be attached in any way to this grief - so at the very least, let's make it a celebration of the people we still have with us and remember that for so many people closest to war and it's effects, this day is about loss, grief, and suffering. By all means, celebrate the memory of people no longer with us, but let's do it with a health measure of understanding for the tragedy involved.

1 comment:

Alan Scott said...

You are right. Grief and loss are the issue. It is very individualized and difficult to find a common way to grieve. Our most common event for grief and loss is a funeral service and there is no one way to meet everyone's emotional needs with even this common event. By the way, you might be interested in this article about Walt Whitman and remembering: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2016/05/17020/