Happy Memorial Day! I hope you are enjoying a wonderful day with loved ones and family.
Memorial Day became a federal holiday in 1971, though it has been celebrated in some form since the 1860s. Today, many Americans—especially those who have not experienced personal loss in this arena—have a natural inclination not to look too closely when it comes to the results of the wars we are fighting or have fought. We are quick with a, “Thank you for your service.” We are slow to think deeply about what it means that less than one percent of our population serves, and that even within our 50 states, there is a marked difference in enlistment rates, and that 25% of our active duty members and veterans show signs of PTSD and other mental health issues.
To this end, I asked a member of my staff who is a veteran what he would ask of Americans on this Memorial Day. He recommended an essay that struck a chord with me—Phil Klay’s The Warrior at the Mall. The essence of Mr. Klay’s argument is that, as a result of the same minority of Americans spending decades at war while an overwhelming majority carries on with their lives as if nothing is amiss, a chasm has opened up between civilians and veterans. This chasm must be bridged, or, as Mr. Klay says:
“We risk our country slipping further into the practice of a fraudulent form of American patriotism, where ‘soldiers are sacred,’ the work of actual soldiering is ignored and the pageantry of military worship sucks energy away from the obligations of citizenship.”
Mr. Klay also points out
“Support for our military remains high at a time when respect for almost every other institution is perilously low, so pushing a military angle as a wedge makes a certain kind of sense. But … our military is justified only by the civic life and values it exists to defend.”
That is, we don’t believe in much these days beyond our military. But the military exists to defend our society itself.
Thus, we owe it to our veterans to take our citizenship seriously enough that it warrants their sacrifices.
If there is a way that we can celebrate this Memorial Day beyond reflecting on and thanking our veterans and members of the armed services for all they have done and given up, it would be to try to become more worthy of their sacrifice. This includes examining our decisions to put our soldiers into harm’s way and how we treat and support them after they return. It even includes how we treat ourselves and other members of our society.
I met with a veterans’ organization this week to learn about their experiences. Both of the officials I met with served in the Middle East in the Marine Corps. Now they work at an organization that tries to end the ‘Forever Wars’ and advocates for Congress regaining its say on military deployments which have fallen solely to the executive branch since 2001. That is where their patriotism and service has led them.
We can do better. We will do better. For our veterans and the country they sacrificed so much for.