When I was a kid, it was called Decoration Day – since that was the day on which one would “decorate” the graves – not only of the war dead but of family as well. One of my mother's favorite stories was about my grandfather – a distinguished banker – trundling all the way through town with a wheelbarrow and “decorating” supplies (and, I'm certain, wearing a 3-piece suit with a watch chain), from their home out to the town cemetery on Decoration Day. Then of course there were the parades and the observances – with the inevitable reading of “In Flanders Fields” and taps (that was the pre-bagpipe era, thank goodness!)... and there were more World War I veterans alive at that time than there are Vietnam veterans alive now. Hard to believe, but...
And as far as what was being commemorated on that day so many years ago, it was, first and foremost, “our honored dead” -- those hometown boys who became heroes simply because they got snatched up by a predatory, empire-building government and sent over to Europe to be killed in trenches, field, and forest. Their lives meant more by having been ended prematurely than they would have meant if they'd stayed alive, in most cases – at least that's my supposition based on what happened to most of the survivors. And this, in fact, is the case more often than not in war, it seems to me – it is said, and regretted, that “the dead don't vote”, but actually they do. They do by their very presence – or absence. One dead soldier weighs more heavily on the mind of any politician than do one hundred live ones, and they are more likely to go to war, or remain at war, in order to see that that one “did not die in vain” than they are to resist going to war in order to save the lives of the hundred.
So yes, we were commemorating those dead, and their sacrifice – not pausing for a moment "to reason why”. They were all heroes, and all equally heroic – no matter if they died in a pitched battle with the Japs or from having been run over by a Jeep. Because it is a mainstay of human nature that extreme sacrifice equals justification and validation: It must have been a worthy cause because look at the price we paid! And the argument about “not dying in vain” is used, more often than not, to justify sending more men into the valley of death. And thus it becomes a vicious circle: One death justifies more, and those justify even more, until we have conflagrations like the Civil War – an orgy of self-destruction unequaled in history, perhaps, up until the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th Century.
But what else were we commemorating? War? Peace? Or the endless and inevitable cycle of the two? It's hard to say, because you can't have “honored dead” without war... and yet it takes at least a moment or two of peace to find time to commemorate them. It is tempting to say that Americans are enamored of war, since we, historically, can't stay out of wars for more than a few years at a time, and since World War II we have been in a state of more or less perpetual war – with the economy on a war footing, and the “Defense” Department (and the “security” and “intelligence” cabal) taking up the lion's share of the nation's wealth. And yet the media insist, reference the war in Afghanistan, that Americans are “war-weary”. I don't think this is true. What Americans are weary of is wars that never end, and where there is no clear-cut victor or resolution. Even our defeat in Vietnam was easier to take, in a way, than this perpetual stalemate in the Middle East; the mistake in Vietnam was not in losing the war, but in having gotten into it in the first place. The mistake, in other words, was in embracing absurdity, which is much harder to deal with psychologically than defeat.
So I say that, far from being war-weary, Americans are positively enamored of war – of the chest-pounding “patriotism” it entails... of the American exceptionalism that is one of its foundation stones... of our manifest destiny as the moral arbiter and policeman of the world... of the parades, the flags, the speeches, the excitement, the barking dogs... brass instruments gleaming in the sun, drum cadences. Yes, mes amis, we are off to war again, because... well, if we don't do it, who will? And obviously someone has to do it; one cannot simply leave the world to its own devices.
But – you'll say – what about all the sacrifices, the economic disruptions, etc.? Well, again, we have an uncanny knack for turning dross into gold when it comes to the price of war. Old folks look back on rationing, for example, with an endless supply of anecdotes, and a bit of nostalgia -- “It was tough, but we lived through it.” And every time a home-town hero returned in one piece – lean, tanned, and shining, sitting on top of a Cadillac in the parade – it more than made up for the ones who came home in body bags or wheelchairs... or had to be confined to the back ward of a VA hospital for the rest of their days. But even for those, there was a kind of savor – again, the notion that it's better to be a hero than just another small-town schlump. If you're one of the permanently war-wounded, that defines your life from then on, and there is a certain status attached to that... a certain impunity, even. If war is the premier self-defining act for a society, it can also be that for the individual. One of my uncles never tired of relating stories from his time in Europe (during World War I). He was born in a very small town in upstate New York, lived there all of his life, and died there. Historically, a non-person... except that he had been “over there”, and that made all the difference – in not only his self-image but in his image in the community. In that sort of provincial society, the difference between a man who gets to wear That Hat and the one who doesn't is immense. Just having been a bit too young or too old to go to war is no excuse – the key is to have been in the flower of one's youth at just the right time (as any Vietnam vet can tell you, ruefully).
So what I'm saying is that there are a million reasons why we love war – the testosterone-infused excitement, the ritual, the iconography, the rite of passage... and even what I'll call the “culture of loss” -- the wounded and/or addicted veterans, the widows and orphans, the ubiquitous yellow ribbons, the POW/MIA flags, the massive economic price... these are all self-defining things as well. They add a kind of perverse excitement, or meaning, to the whole thing. And is there a hint of masochism in all of this, of the kind described by Drew Gilpin Faust in “This Republic of Suffering” about the Civil War? I say yes – but it's a masochism based on some sort of need for reparation and repentance for past sins. As chest-thumping and bullying as we might be as a nation, we also seem plagued by self-doubt and guilt at times – and I don't just mean the garden-variety liberal guilt, which will be with us always. This is more along the lines of, if I am not absolutely positive of my position, and of always doing that which is right and just, then what of all the death and destruction that inevitably follows? Will that not redound on me eventually... and won't I deserve it on some level? (When Ron Paul suggested something like this with regard to 9/11, Rudy Giuliani practically had a stroke right on stage... but Paul was right.) And aren't our politicians constantly bellowing that "we will pay any price" to spread democracy and insure freedom for all the world's oppressed peoples, etc.? And furthermore, is not suffering one's basic lot in life, and is not every moment not spent dwelling on this fact a mark against us? I think that this gloomy, fatalistic sort of Protestant thinking had a lot to do with the Civil War... and I think it remains, as a deep substrate, in the background of all of our wars since then. And don't we have a strange tendency, after all, to turn even our victories into defeats? We pounded Germany and Japan to fine powder in World War II – but guess who managed to make a miraculous economic recovery afterwards (even with our troops still occupying their homelands)? We “won” the Cold War, but whose economy is on the ropes 20 years later, and who is ascendant? Right, our old communist enemies. And so on. For all of our bluster and pretense, the truth is that we can't handle victory – not really. It's unnatural... uncomfortable... and if the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were to, magically, end overnight, we would get restless and start fishing around for new conflicts to become enmeshed in.
And this is not to even include the baleful effect of government, war lobbies, armament makers, bankers, neocons, etc. -- all of whom are ever anxious to exploit the American people's love affair with war. One could even ask which came first, our zest for war as a people or the ceaseless propaganda and corruption that facilitates war. I think they are mutually reinforcing, and I don't think it matters any longer which came first. I mean, if the American people really disliked war, they could start by voting out of office any politician who wages war or supports it. And do it not once but in every election, for as long as it takes to eliminate all the war-mongers. But what happens to candidates who are labeled (by our ever-compliant media) “peaceniks”, or “peace candidates”, or (worst of all) “pacifists”? What, in fact, even happens to those who call themselves “anti-war conservatives”? They are, in all cases, thrashed and soundly beaten in the polls, defamed, called every name in the book, and basically run out of town on a rail, politically-speaking. Plus, even those perennial “peaceniks”, who are so fond of demonstrating against war as long as a Democrat is not in the White House, are not really against war. They're only against the wrong _kind_ of war. So they had no problem, for instance, with Clinton bombing Belgrade... and they're in a state of total paralysis with regard to Libya, since it's “their” president who is doing all the bombing and strafing. So no, when it comes to sincere, principled opposition to war, they don't count, and never have. And I'm not building a brief for pacifism here, either – there really are people out there who want to kill us and take our stuff, and we have to act accordingly. But if you cut our level of “defense” preparedness down to only the level that a “just war” would require, you wind up with no more than 10% of what we have now, in terms of total cost for defense, security, and intelligence. The rest is all about empire.
So I leave you with this one thought, above all – that Memorial Day is, indeed, a celebration... but not only of that which we think we're celebrating. If you plumb the depths, you realize that this day is just the sun-lit tip of the iceberg, and that the bulk lies much deeper, in frigid waters, and represents a major part of America's heart of darkness. And on that basis, it would be more appropriate -- if too frank for most people's taste -- to call this War Day.