Tomorrow is Memorial Day, when we Americans give our remembrance of those Americans who’ve died fighting for this country. (Estimates of the numbers vary wildly, but let’s say about 1.8 million Americans total since the War of Independence.) In point of fact, most Americans mark Memorial Day as the psychological beginning of summer.
Personally, I think Memorial Day ought to be not an American but a worldwide holiday: a day when all of us, in every country, mourn and remember those who died fighting for us — those whom history has painted as heroes, those whom history has painted as monsters, and those whose names and deeds were never even recorded for posterity. It should be a day when we recognize and acknowledge the human cost of our disagreements and arguments, going all the way back to the mythological figure of Abel, lying dead in a field somewhere with his brains bashed in over his brother’s jealousy of God’s love. (Of course, many scholars see the story of Cain and Abel as an allegory for the triumph of cultivators over pastoral nomads…but that would be appropriate as well: the masquerading of temporal, cultural and social conflict beneath the mask of religion.)
It is very easy to forget that most of the soldiers who ever breathed their last on a battlefield or in a military hospital bed were unwilling or barely willing conscripts: boys, mostly, not really men, scared and confused and trying to simply survive the ordeal of doing what they were told. Most of them didn’t want war. They wanted families, businesses, homes; they wanted to grow old with their grandchildren on their knees. And this is as true of every German soldier who died at Normandy and St. Petersburg as it is of the American and British and Russian soldiers who killed them, and died in turn at their hands.
Some of them saw horrible things, and most of them did horrible things, and there is no excuse for those things; but those are things we deal with on every other day of the year. Tomorrow, we ought to remember what they gave, not what they took.
This is an especially sad Memorial Day for Americans. In the Iraq War, America has lost over 4,000 soldiers. Almost 30,000 have been wounded. Civilian casualties — dead and wounded — may run as high as 650,000 or even a million. It’s a stupid, dishonorable war architected by stupid, dishonorable men on every side of the conflict — American, Iraqi and insurgent alike. But that does not lessen the sacrifice of those who are dying — dying to defend their own country, dying to defend the idea of democracy, dying for their faith. I abhor their ideals and I am heartbroken at the idea that anyone would willingly end their life to defend any religious system, Christian or otherwise. But I will not take their deaths lightly simply because I disagree with their reasons for dying.
War is never the right answer, but sometimes it’s the only answer. Until we learn to eradicate those things in the human brain which cause us to attack and hurt and steal from our fellow men, war will continue. Those young men and women will keep falling, whether in the sandy streets of Baghdad or the wastelands of Darfur or the killing fields of Myanmar.
And we ought to all of us take tomorrow to think about that, and to decide what ideas can possibly be worth dying for.