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May 26, 2008

Why Im Not a Fan of Memorial Day


Five years ago, on what we by law determine to be Memorial Day, I started the afternoon by going to the movies. Those days, as today, those moments when I was free to do things spontaneously were rare enough that they stand out in memory, you see.


After I got home, and before I set to what plans I had in mind (grilling meat while drinking beer), I did a little surfing.


One of the final sites I hit was the Washington Post, and I went to its page devoted to servicemen killed in Iraq. I figured, well today is the day, and I may as well show respect for it.


I did the Internet version of flipping through the pages, pausing here and there to read the bios for photos that seemed to grab my attention for one reason or another and finally came to one that prompted me to stop altogether.


For me, it was a matter of not just knowing someone, but having served with him during my four years in the Navy. It was also at that moment that I realized that there will always be faces familiar to you, and that you will always be able to access them with just a simple reminder.


I bring this up because Im about to say something that is apt to be highly unpopular, and that is that Im not a fan of Memorial Day.


This isnt because I have Memorial Day baggage, nor because it is personally uncomfortable that, on a day set aside for remembering Americans killed in conflict, I found out that I served in uniform with one of them.


I am against it primarily because of William March, born William Campbell.


Campbell served as a Marine in World War I, and went on to win commendations from both his government and that of France for heroism under fire. After the war, he went on to write stories and novels. One of them was the novel, Company K.


Company K was the story of a unit of American soldiers through the eyes of its individual members. It started with the day that the unit was mustered, through the end of the war concluding several years after, pointing out that individual soldiers continue to fight wars long after the treaties and armistices bring hostilities to a close.


One in particular that stood out to me was the chapter dedicated to someone identified only as The Unknown Soldier. He started as part of a wire party, and after being discovered by the Germans was raked by machinegun fire and then caught in barbed wire.


Snared in the wire, he realized that he was going to die. He reflects on his life, including those things that brought him to where he was, at that moment. Standing out were speeches he attended in his childhood in which city elders would regale the citizenry with speeches of those who died in war. They were the glorious dead.


Realizing that his own death would be used that way, he tore up his identity cards, preferring to die anonymously rather than be the cause of future small boys to grow up and believe that dying in war is a great and noble sacrifice.


It is an unfortunate point, but that doesnt make it any less true. It is good that we remember our fallen in a way that is uncritical of their deaths, but is not entirely uncritical. Public ceremonies and speeches crafted to assuage anguish leave aside a critical point, which is that any death in conflict is a poignant argument for us to end conflict and prevent it in the future.


This is not something that can be properly done en masse, but is best left to private reflection. 


2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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