I’m never really sure how to respond to things like Memorial Day.
To start with, I am not a veteran. I have never been to war. I have never trained for war. I have not been close to war in any sort of meaningful way. Any opinion I have is from observations, not experience. Therefore, I am willing to forfeit any and all opinions I have on anything and everything having to do with war and veteran status as second to what an actual veteran has to say. It feels incredibly presumptuous, to even think that I could posit anything remotely relevant on the matter.
But, well, I’m a human who thinks about things. So I do. But always, always with the caveat of “I respect your experience before my opinion.”
Okay. Let’s begin. Me being conflicted about Memorial Day. Alrighty.
To start with, when I was little, I barely understood what Memorial Day was for, confusing it with “Labor Day” in my mind quite easily as “one of those vague grown-up holidays that I get a day off for YEAH WOO FREE MONDAY!” I mean, as far I could tell, celebrating both days pretty much meant playing in my backyard for a long time while the adults ate hot dogs. Sure, I’d have the small little spiel from my elementary school on the Friday before. “You all have Monday off because we’re honoring our veterans.” And I would nod politely and go back to thinking about how much math homework I had to do while honoring whatever “veteran” meant.
Eventually, I learned that particular vocabulary term but had no clearer feelings about the holiday. I was told I should appreciate that other men and women had gone off and shot others and been shot in the name of protecting my rights and freedoms that to me never felt particularly threatened. I lived in America, after all. For a really long time, war was something I only saw on a TV screen. It was quite easy for me to sit back and say that no, that out there surely was not necessary. I mean, I knew that my grandfather was a veteran, but he never talked about his time in a war that concluded before my parents even married. As a kid, I didn’t understand that the silence was probably testament enough. No, I didn’t yet understand the absence of recognition as a problem itself. So for me, to all intents and purposes, war was just a word. An easily judged word. Not anything like a reality.
I have grown up more, now. Those shades of black and white that made me so easy a pacifist before have been pushed and shoved and regretted and cried into something more smeary a grey.
But while my thoughts are more complex now, they are by no means more decisive.
There are many reasons war happens, but honestly, most of them boil down to humans having decided that the world and life in it are zero sum games so it’s us against whoever we’ve designated as “them,” boys. There aren’t enough rights or resources to go around, so let’s fight to get the most of them. Because we, whoever “we” are, deserve them most.
Sharing is not a thing humans do well. Humans are too good at fear to be able to really share all that rationally.
War is the product of imperfect action on a global scale.
It’s massively bad for everyone involved. But no one can stop while everyone else is still going. If you play the game that way, you wind up with the punnett square that gives you absolutely nothing.
So we all keep playing.
That is the reality. As terrible as war may be, it is undeniably still happening. Standing and screaming for it to stop without being able to offer any sort of real solution on how to do that is as useful as telling a choking person to just start breathing again. No, the upheavals are still racking the global body. War, for my foreseeable future, is something that’s going to stick around.
So the empathy behind my pacifism has decided to start dealing with the micro-scale.
Okay, let’s go back to talking about our veterans.
They are not the reason that war is happening. It is necessary to divorce how you – I – feel about “war the thing” from what I know about “war the people.”
Because now, it’s not just “oh yeah my grandfather fought in a war.” It’s “yeah, that kind, quiet man on skid row I brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to every week for three years is a veteran.” It’s “wow, those boys in reserve uniform in line at the airport look even younger than my young-enough-to-still-be-making-bad-decisions cousin.” It’s “that woman I met on the beach with premature osteoporosis from chemical exposure in the Gulf War who after a badass life is going back to school to learn another trade she can do with her failing body and that’s fucking incredible.”
And it’s my friends, too.
A countable many, all in different branches of the military. They are some of the smartest, kindest, most capable people I know.
And now they’re in uniform, too.
The choice to go into the military and the actions performed therein can be stupid, ignorant, brave, heroic, smart, life-saving, death-causing. But as long as we keep choosing to play the zero-sum game of perpetual war, we need people who are willing to make them. Good or bad as it all may be.
“Proud” is a word that gets thrown around a lot on Memorial Day. I cannot be blanketly proud of a label. I can be proud of action. I can be proud, to an extent, of intention.
“Honor” is also a word that comes up a lot today. Again, I cannot blanketly honor so varied a group as humans, but I can respect. I can respect the hell out of the choices someone else has made that I have not, would not, because it’s what they needed to do, or what a country needed them to do. I can respect that they are also another human, trying their best. Or at least, that’s what I can hope they’re doing.
Hope is not a word that gets said a lot on Memorial Day. And that, I think, is what I wish were different.
War is not a hopeful thing. And it is my impression that with mementos like PTSD, lost friends, shit economic resources, massive and constant assumption about what your experience was, and all the other hangers-on of a life now ingrained in you that most of your country only understands as scenes on their TV, “veteran” is not a very hopeful status, either.
I’m not sure I can thank someone for accepting that.
More and more on Memorial Day, as a civilian, I instead feel the need to say sorry.
I’m sorry your lives and your deaths are our memorial to this zero-sum game.
And I am sorry for all the hardships you have accepted that you will get no memorial for.