Memorial Day in America is becoming further and further distanced from its function — a day of commemoration for those killed in military service — in the hearts and minds of our citizenry.
In many respects, and particularly for Gen Xers and Millenials, that is understandable. We are the children and grandchildren of war. Some of us may have engaged in low-level skirmishing and guerilla actions across the globe. Some of us have experienced the terrifyingly swift invasions of other borders. But, for we kids and grandkids of the Boomers, the generation-defining losses of war, of life may as well have been a century ago rather than a mere generation.
As a nation, America has always largely been insulated from the horrors of war. For a century and a half, national policy was largely aimed at hemispheric control rather than overseas misadventures. The US was loathe to become entangled in the skein of alliances that plunged the planet into the first global war. The nation’s geographic positioning has shielded us from the nightmare of modern warfare, that of total war. Protected as we are by two oceans and the longest contiguous peacetime border in the history of the world, our security is rivaled only by Siberia as a natural barrier to invasion. America’s long technological and manufacturing history has resulted in our armaments being the envy of the world. The U.S. controls the skies, the seas, orbital satellites, communications, the internet — it has basing agreements in 107 nations and can wage winning conflicts against half the nations on this planet with a joystick.
And, for the first time in the post-War years, less than one-half of one-percent of Americans serve in an active duty military that is the most powerful in the history of the world. So, it is understandable then that we pay relatively short shrift to Memorial day. Since the end of the Vietnam war, 45 years, fewer than 9,000 soldiers have been killed in service — and that accounts for battle deaths, in-theater deaths, and non-theatre deaths. Remote doesn’t even describe most Americans’ experience with war in 2018. For a half century, not only is war a vast remoteness — a something that happens in other places; it also a vast alienage — a something that happens to other people.
It’s not a new observation either.
In 1913, one Hoosier veteran complained that younger people born since the war had a “tendency ... to forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears.”
It was from these tears that Memorial Day first began as Remembrance Day. A time when the nation was bleeding from the first wounds of what would become a global scourge: a short-but-devastating Civil War that marked the beginning of a full century of total war. Civilians and cities as targets. Depopulation as status quo. Entire peoples targeted for elimination on the basis of ideology or immutable otherness. Entire continents subject to economic apartheid, recriminations, and societal reordering through reconstructions.
The cannon had barely cooled when veterans from both sides of the Mason-Dixon began to gather to memorialize their dead, to try and make sense of a new world that had been unleashed like a syphilitic Pandora. At first, these were tribal gatherings. Southerners for southerners; northerners for northerners. But, as time passed, the sides would meet to share their tears. These were American casualties for an American story. And, one day that shared grief would pay off, as their children and grandchildren began to heal the rift while defeating the existential thread of global totalitarianism.
Before that reconciliation could happen; before the republic was necessarily deconstructed to pay the wages of our national sins; before there was a combatant North and South; before a Constitution; and before there was even an America, there were patriots who fought and died to defend the independence of a nation yet-to-born and the stubborn-minded people who populate these shores.
The first casualty of the Revolutionary war, indeed the catalyst of America’s armed insurrection, was the Boston Massacre and the death of Crispus Attucks. Attucks was truly the blood of the continent and the story of America: a freed slave and the son of a slave; a man with a Native American mother; a ropeworker earning his dockside wages alongside white colonists, French traders, British merchants, German mercenaries, Dutch financiers, Moorish pirates, and Jewish craftsmen.
His assembly and his voice — exercising what would become the First Amendment — resulted in his death. He would be the first of almost 2,000,000 Americans to die under military service, for reasons good, bad, and of cosmic indifference.
But all of those lives, and all of those casualties are part of our American story. Take a moment to reflect on them.
Have a safe, and yes, even a happy Memorial Day. We’ll see you tomorrow.