At the risk of sounding like a bad American, there are some aspects of Memorial Day that I really struggle with. As I recently wrote, I take no issue with recognizing the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women throughout history who have fought for American freedom.
One aspect that I struggle with, though, is the rampant hyper-nationalism that bubbles to the surface on “patriotic” holidays like Memorial Day, July 4th & Veteran’s Day. This kind of nationalism, which manifests itself in the devotion of the individual to the centralized state, is the natural enemy of all the freedoms that the veterans are supposed to have sacrificed for. America’s founders understood this, as did generations of American conservatives until the mid-twentieth century.
It was conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet who observed that centralized power consumes the social authority of institutions like the church, family and community. Nisbet stated that this phenomenon, which necessarily results in the growth of government power, “is nourished by the emotions of organized war.” So too, it seems to be nourished by remembrances of those who served in war. At the risk of sounding cynical, it almost seems that Memorial Day has morphed into a holiday celebrating the nation-state as much as, if not more than, a day of remembering sacrifice.
The other part of Memorial Day I struggle with is the almost cartoonish way that individual sacrifice is treated. There are all kinds of statements about respecting the sacrifice of the troops but there seems to be very little concern about reducing the number of troop casualties by reducing our foreign entanglements. It seems to me that if Americans really respected the troops as much as we say we do, we would not be nearly as eager to involve them – and by extension, their families – in every foreign conflict we can.
On the other hand, the dead and maimed in foreign lands – the widows, orphans and broken families – that are a direct result of American foreign policy are never discussed on Memorial Day. In an environment in which American actions result in increasingly large numbers of innocent foreign civilians being killed, it seems almost callous to emphasize only the suffering of American families.
That is not to discount such suffering, but by focusing solely on the negative impact of war on our own people, Americans risk losing their sense of humanity. The stark reality is that in the past several decades, far more innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of American policy than have American soldiers have. An inability or refusal to acknowledge and mourn these losses represents a departure from the compassion and humanity that are the alleged hallmarks of our society.
Ultimately, it’s not Memorial Day itself that I find uncomfortable, but the way it is celebrated. I fully support recognizing the heroism and sacrifice that have contributed to the freedoms that Americans have historically enjoyed. Unfortunately, much of the celebration of Memorial Day centers on concepts that undermine every one of those liberties.
If Americans truly want to honor the sacrifices of their troops, we should recognize the heroism, bravery and sacrifice of our countrymen. We should recognize that our government has often treated their lives with callous disregard by sending them to war when American liberty was not imperiled. We should support and protect our military personnel by refusing to permit sending them to war except under the scrictest of criteria. And we should acknowledge that America’s foreign wars have resulted in the death and destruction of other peoples and societies.