Honor the Dead Don’t Honor the War

Every year for Memorial Day my family would march down our street set up lawn chairs along the main road and watch the Memorial Day Parade. Everyone from the boy scouts, to the girl scouts, to the high school marching band, to the fire department would get to march in the parade.

I didn’t think about it until this year but Memorial Day is a poorly disguised day to honor the glorious tradition of America.   I have family who are veterans and I’m not writing as an excuse to dishonor those who gave their lives. However, it is in terrible taste to create a holiday where everyone is taught to blindly love the wars America has fought.

My whole life, I’ve been told that we’re honoring the dead’s sacrifice for the living so we can have freedom today. But in reality, we’re honoring war. We’re honoring a tradition of white men who fight for some abstract idea of America. What does this even mean? We may have a democracy in theory but how many people actually feel they have a voice and can make change? Although America was founded under the banner of representation, we were never an egalitarian country: the founding fathers wrote up the Constitution to protect the interests of the rich white male. And that is the same interest of most of the wars we’ve fought in since.

I understand that’s a big generalization, but from my experience being taught to be patriotic and uphold the values of American freedom and democracy I’ve found that as we get older we’re never really told the truth. Sure we find out that our founding fathers owned slaves and that the Civil War wasn’t actually fought over slavery, but we turn the wars America has fought in, into an impossible good vs evil struggle. And America is always the good guys.

I once argued with a friend’s boyfriend about America’s involvement in WWII. He told me that if America hadn’t gotten involved the world would have been lost. First, how can you prove this? Second, this is giving America a hero complex. This is completely ignoring the terrible racism America had against Japanese Americans even before the internment camps, ignoring that Pearl Harbor happened because America cut of Japan’s oil supply, and ignoring that America didn’t open our borders to Jews. There is so much more going on here than good vs evil and America’s great altruism to save the world.

It’s a great idea to have a holiday honoring the dead. However, we’re honoring America’s wars instead. We’re honoring the racism inherent in our system which segregated blacks and whites–racism which still affects people of color today. We’re honoring the lie of self determination we fought for in WWII, while America still held onto colonies and continued to racially oppress its own people. We’re honoring the numerous rapes and war crimes of Vietnam.

My home town is majority white and could be the quintessential American suburb: great school system, affluent area, white population. This is reflected in our Memorial Day parade where almost everyone who walks down the main road is white, middle class and raising high the American banner of white supremacy and patriarchy.

If we really wanted to do something for our troops, how about we implement a program where soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not encouraged to be islamophobic and racist. How about we protect the Bradley Mannings of the world instead of imprisoning them as threats to national security? What the women of the armed forces? They are suffering through sexual assault at increasing rates by other American troops. And this is the tradition we are honoring: one of violence against everyone.

This parade I had gone to since I was a child is a facade to further imbed American nationalism. I do not feel comfortable supporting a parade which perpetuates ideas of racism, patriarchy and violence.

By all means, honor the dead, but there are no heroes of war.

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5 thoughts on “Honor the Dead Don’t Honor the War

  1. I fear I disagree. However, where we are coming from may be a factor in this. My town does not have a parade. My neighbors think supporting the troops means getting a car magnet. For my peers back in high school, war was an abstract concept in a faraway that didn’t really effect them. When we hung a blue star in our window, most people had no idea what that meant. America does not go to war anymore. Its military does and its citizens don’t have to sacrifice anything or deal with what happens when the men and women we send come home, some broken on the outside, some on the inside. They can blame them and pretend their hands are clean when it was their elected officials who sent them.
    I don’t think Memorial Day is a celebration of war. Quite the opposite. It’s supposed to be a somber day to reflect on the price of war. It was started after the Civil War, which claimed more American lives than any other. Many see it solely as an excuse for a barbeque, but, having stood in Arlington Cemetery and seen the vast forest of graves we’ve planted there through the years, I know that’s not the point at all.
    Yes, America has done some seriously fucked up things and I will never not call our history on its shit. But that is our doing. Not the fault of the eighteen-year-olds we send off to die.

    • Thank you for your honesty and I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve been to the war memorials in DC and being there felt so different than being at my town’s parade. The war memorials understand that there’s a big difference between honoring the lives of those who made sacrifices and heaping that honor on the country instead. At least from my experience, the holiday is an excuse to make America appear as an eternal hero. I agree with you that nothing America does is the fault of the soldiers who fight the wars and I do want to honor them, but I don’t feel Memorial Day captures the somber quality necessary for a memorial.

  2. I both agree and disagree with you. I think Memorial Day reflects our connection to the military and, in the present moment, that connection is rather weak.

    Historically, Memorial Day was anything but a normative jingoist holiday. Arguably started by African-American veterans after the civil war to provide a time to lay flowers on the graves of the departed, I’d say that, at it’s inception, Memorial Day was very much a holiday of the underprivileged: those who suffered the worst of the war’s ravages.

    Then again, I did hear someone wish a customer a “happy Memorial Day” this year, so it’s hard to argue that the meaning hasn’t gotten lost along the way.

    • huh, I didn’t know it was started by African Americans, that certainly helps shift my perspective on where it started as opposed to where it is today. I appreciate the historical insight on that. Thanks a lot!

      But yeah, I hear people wish others “Happy Memorial Day” pretty consistently, and at least from my home town where we had a fancy parade each year, it certainly felt (and still feels) very jingoist.

  3. What a thought-provoking post. Memorial Day is unadulterated nationalism. It is a parade of subservience to the status quo.

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