This Memorial Day, I think back to a time when war wasn’t in our thoughts, a time when rifles were only made of sticks and used as backyard playthings on hot summer afternoons where imagination was the only thing that mattered. A time when, as cub scouts with hand me down uniforms and tiny American flags we followed our gray haired grandfathers down Main Street to the cemetery where shots rang out and a distant bugler played a chilling tune. Far from understanding the true meaning of the day, just mimicking the old men who wore sad faces and blank stares. Local men of the cloth led prayers, followed by battle hardened townsfolk who had fought in WW2, Korea and Vietnam speaking heartfelt words of remembrance. This Memorial Day I pause to remember the gray haired grandfathers, born before the great depression and showing up daily next to pictures of flags and a summary of their life in the obituary sections of our local newspapers. I pause to remember the fallen from today’s wars, wars which began when some of them were still in elementary school. I pause to remember the young men who died as they were ordered to fight their way across this land to suppress the indigenous population… And I also pause to remember those indigenous people who fought to the death to protect their land, their people and their culture, only to be out manned and out gunned, forced into signing meaningless treaties before being herded further and further from their ancestral homes on blood and tear soaked trails. I pause to remember the innocent people living in Hiroshima in August of 1945, and those living in Baghdad in March of 2003. I pause to remember the native Hawaiians who died defending their sovereignty after it was deemed strategically important to uncle sam to invade and occupy these beautiful islands. I pause to remember the indigenous people of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, forgotten by history after being devastated by our governments countless nuclear weapons tests in the dawn of the cold war. This Memorial Day I pause to remember the innocent people who died as a result of the decisions of our government throughout our history from South East Asia to South America to the South Pacific to what is now the state of South Dakota, and everywhere in between. Most of all, today, I pause to remember the young men and women who made the decision to put country before self and risk life and limb in the service of their neighbors, some taking their last breath on foreign battle fields. I pause to remember the value of human life both in and out of uniform and vow to never stop demanding that my government do the same. This Memorial Day, 2010, as I walk through the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, otherwise known as ‘Punchbowl’ inside of the giant Puowaina volcanic crater in Honolulu, I pause to remember the 28,778 missing servicemen who are individually honored here, and the thousands who are buried here including nearly 800 who died just up the road on a day that has lived in infamy for nearly seventy years. I pause for a while to remember that today is not about burgers and beer, not about opening up the pool or tubing down the river, not about Memorial Day sales at local shopping centers, not about the pomp and circumstance of city parades. Its not about the bugler playing taps, the countless American flags, the speeches of politicians or the prayers led by men of the cloth. Today is about remembering, be it in a cemetery, at a beach, on a mountain top or at that backyard bbq, remembering the reason that we don’t have school or work today. Today is about remembering… that it shouldn’t take a federal holiday to remember our brothers and sisters whose lives were cut far too short. It shouldn’t take a federal holiday to cause you to pause and think about the fact that at this very moment, someone’s son or daughter might be dying thousands of miles from home in a war that you hear less and less about on CNN and Fox News, or might be in a lonely room of a soldiers home of veterans hospital fighting another battle, or swallowing booze and drugs both prescribed and illegal, or swallowing the barrel of a gun. With suicides surpassing combat deaths, we need to remember those Uncle Sam would rather forget, their service no less selfless than the rest though their wounds deeper and hidden until it’s too late, and work to help those still with us before it is too late.
Today should also be about remembering that the ‘collateral damage’ the pundits speak of are innocent mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, left maimed, widowed and orphaned. It is un-American to look at the civilian loss on the other side as statistics. If we are who we say we are, if we are the last beacon of hope in a messed up world, we have to remember our successes as well as our failures, when we have helped as well as when we have hurt, battles won as well as battles lost, when we have saved innocent lives as well as when we have taken innocent lives. When we’ve killed foe and when we’ve killed friend. Today, we have to remember our fallen men and women in uniform, and to truly honor their memory we have to remember all of our past, and truly value all human life. We have to be willing to learn and willing to accept the full history of our nation, the good the bad and the ugly. Our brothers and sisters died for our country in places they were sent to by our government. Their sacrifice is not any less or greater from one war to the next. An 18 year old kid who was killed in France in WW1 made the same ultimate sacrifice for his friends and neighbors as an 18 year old kid who was killed in Vietnam. Whether history proves the war to be just or unjust, it doesn’t change the memories and scars of those who fought, it doesn’t bring their brothers and sisters back, and it doesn’t change the fact that they, whether drafted or enlisted, were willing to risk their life for their friends and neighbors in a war their government ordered them to fight. Mark Twain said it best, ‘Loyalty to the country always loyalty to the government only when it deserves it’. In donning their nations uniform out of loyalty to their country, let us not fault them when we don’t agree with the places the government sends them, let us respect them by holding the government to a higher standard, by learning exactly what DEMOCRACY is, by holding politicians accountable for their actions, by demanding they represent the best interests of WE THE PEOPLE, and by not letting CNN, FOX, MSNBC and the like, make up our minds for us. This Memorial Day I remember those who died while selflessly serving this country that we call home, but I also remember those innocent men and women who died at the hands of our government, both those whose land our forefathers stole, and whose resources our fathers stole.
I remember all those we have helped, but I also remember all those we have wronged. We are a good country with great people but a terrible government (in terms of representing its people), we have long been a flawed nation, but the heart and soul of American people, by and large, is good and pure. We are not our government. While we do enjoy freedoms most in the world do not, we are not free. We can’t keep sacrificing the freedoms those we remember today died for simply because the word ‘Patriot’ follows the word ‘act’. Turn off the TV, learn your history, learn your enemies history, learn why we do the things we do and why they do the things they do.
While we are the richest and most powerful nation, we are as poor as our poorest citizen, as weak as our weakest, and as corrupt as our most corrupt politician. As a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too is America. America is far from perfect but we have the right to change that, we have a right more powerful than any weapon on earth, a right that those we remember today gave their lives for, the right to VOTE. We are not the Kennedy’s, the Bush’s, the Clinton’s… we are John and Jane doe American, John and John Doe American, Jane and Jane Doe American. We have the rights we have today because the repressed have spoken truth to power, have stood up and died in the streets. We are who we are because the little man is willing to die in countries we can’t even pronounce or find on a map, for his friends and neighbors. To truly honor our fallen this Memorial Day and every Memorial Day, we must make sure our government does not stray further and further from our country’s ideals, so that their sacrifices will not have been in vain. Let’s honor them, not by waving a flag or singing a patriotic tune, but by learning what democracy is, the democracy they fought and died in the name of, and by learning what’s on the ballot before election day, making up our own minds and not submitting to the will of Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, turning off the TV and reading, and doing something they gave us the right to do, really knowing what it is we are voting for and VOTING.
To honor all of the fallen we can’t fail to ask why. We can’t fail to ask if it was worth their blood and all of the blood that our government saw fit to spill. Americans are still fighting and dying overseas today… please don’t act like you care about them on Memorial Day if you could care less the other 364 days of the year. Please don’t act like you care about the memory of the men and women who didn’t make it home, if you could care less about the ones who did, the veterans killing themselves at a rate of nearly two dozen every single day, and the current soldiers killing themselves at a rate of one every single day. This memorial day, let’s not forget that the lives of poor brown people in the middle east and south east Asia, are not worth any less than the lives of rich, white politicians in Washington wearing thousand dollar suits with tiny American flag lapel pins.