I stare at a blank page, unsure what to write today. I usually plan blogs ahead of time, but I don’t have anything planned for today. It’s Memorial Day. I figure I should write about that, right? You could say that the discussion of Memorial Day has nothing to do with the topic of health & fitness, but my approach to health is to treat the whole human. Dealing with the heavy feelings, with purpose and meaning–with emotions–is part of that. So I will write about Memorial Day.
But that brings up some heavy thoughts, and big questions. What are we memorializing? What is there to celebrate about war, and deaths in war?
We don’t commemorate the enemy combatants who died in our wars, or the victims of our armed forces who were killed in genocidal wars. On Memorial Day, we only memorialize members of the U.S. Armed Forces who died in our wars.
It’s easy to see how this can be taken the wrong way, or done with incorrect intentions. To my heart, it only makes sense to celebrate our war-dead if they died for something bigger than themselves, something right and good.
This Memorial Day began after the Civil War with freed slaves in Charleston, SC commemorating the Union soldiers who fought and died for their freedom, and with the village of Waterloo, NY instituting an annual day of business closures and grave-decorations. These people were not worshipping war or death, but admiring the people who gave their own lives for a greater cause.
And what cause is greater than preserving your own life and doing no harm to others? To my heart, there is only one cause worthy of war and death in war: human dignity. That all people be equal and free. This is the only cause worthy of death in war. The defense of yourself and others.
I have a problem with Memorial Day, personally. It is traumatic for me. I remember my grandfather’s stories of watching his best friends die in war against the Japanese–as a teenager. I remember my own brother dying in the Iraq war at age 19. I honor them as individuals and I remember them on this day, but I don’t go to the graves and decorate them. I’ve spent most Memorial Days hiding out alone somewhere, going to work, or at the gym doing “Murph”. I’ve ignored it, basically.
But the thing you ignore soon becomes the thing you can’t ignore.
I believe that every human life is sacred. I believe that it is wrong to kill others for selfish means. I believe that violence is only justifiable in the cause of self-defense and the defense or liberation of human life.
Therefore, I believe that the origin of the US Armed Forces began with a noble cause: liberty, war in the cause of independence from a colonial master.
I believe that the US Armed Forces were subsequently used for great evil in the suppression of slave revolts, of tenant uprisings, and in the genocide of Native Americans and continued colonization of the continent. The anti-colonials became the new colonists, and the “liberators” became the new oppressors.
And so it goes throughout the history of U.S. wars. Our Armed Forces have been used for good and they have been used for evil, for the liberation of peoples and for the subjugation of peoples, to resist tyranny and to support tyranny.
I began to write a list of all the wars the United States Armed Forces have fought, and my feelings about each of them, but that was a rabbit hole–a sidetrack away from the purpose of this message. At 38 years old, I recognize a great deal more nuance than, “good war,” or, “bad war.” A war happened. Many died. Some things changed. Some things didn’t. Arguments about the “good” and the “bad” of it often crumble under close inspection.
And we’re still caught up in these wars, and they’re still as morally problematic as ever. I have abhorred the Iraq war since it’s inception, but I have also lost my brother to it and carried his casket. I have stood in protest at the fence of the White House, carrying photos of our war dead. I’ve had dozens of good friends and people I love go and return from that war, or the one in Afghanistan, and lose their own friends and loved ones there. I know veterans who believe in it and veterans who don’t. I know people throughout the world who detest the U.S. interventions abroad. I have also met Afghans and Iraqis who are grateful for the U.S. presence in their countries.
So what do I memorialize on Memorial day? I do not support the military-industrial complex and I do not support the power-elites in the government who send our children and siblings to die in their wars. I know that every person who ever died in a US military uniform was not magically a “good guy”, and that every person killed by a US weapon was not magically a “bad guy”. Still, I grieve for them all.
I think about those people I know who’ve been to war: my brother, my grandfather, my many good friends who currently serve or are veterans. I think about their friends, the people who put their lives on the line to protect them. This is not an abstract thing. Whether the ultimate cause of the war be right or wrong, whether the strategy employed be right or wrong, these people are not concerned with that when they’re taking enemy fire. When they’re in the military, they take an oath to one another, to preserve each-other’s lives. Each one of these U.S. war dead that we memorialize died while attempting to stay alive and to keep their brothers and sisters alive.
My feelings about the right or the wrong of that are irrelevant to that moment and that experience, because I am not there and I am not making those choices. I may think they’ve been misled, manipulated, wrongly mobilized, or brainwashed. I may think they are righteous, just, and courageous. All of this is irrelevant to the dead or to those struggling to stay alive. Those are the kind of conversations for peace time and the home front.
So on Memorial Day I remember my brother Nathan William Nakis, who died outside Mosul, Iraq on December 16th, 2003. I remember the friends of my grandfather William Constantine Nakis who died in the Pacific Theater in World War II. I remember the dead, unknown to me, whose loss was felt by my friends who served. I remember those dying now. I remember all the millions dead from wars throughout human history. I resolve to speak up about the injustice of war. I aspire to a better way of conflict resolution. I hope that all these lives were not spent in vain, and I pray for a day when mankind no longer makes recourse to war.
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