Memorial Day, like many war-related events, I find hard to celebrate appropriately.
More and more I do not support war. Not just our current war, but any. I can memorialize the dead–I want to remember their sacrifices–but I get stuck with it being about those who died in military service. I do not want to glorify war, as it is always a tragedy when someone dies; even the enemy or for a good cause or someone who did what they believed in and died doing it. Going to a service, those few who attend understand. Yet, how do you convey it to the rest of our population? How do you memorize a loss while not celebrating the cause? Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” captures this dilemma perfectly, yet is not appropriate for middle school students.
The easy stance is to support our troops. Period. In a democracy, though, we have the choice not to. A duty. As an educator, it is my job to encourage students to question their own actions, and the actions of others. It is not about what a historical or literary figure did, but why and if they made the best choice. Without questioning we are mere robots to those older than us. Yet, to question can lead to dismissing the loss.
To dismiss the loss disrespects the dead because it assumes that he or she was somehow duped into serving or had wasted their lives. The dynamic then becomes that the speaker is superior because they are alive, when, in fact, it is probably circumstances of fate that make it so. Similarly, celebrating the loss often has the speaker appropriating the honor due the dead. Our sad compromise is that Memorial Day is a day off. We bar-b-que, and have parades that have little to do with reflection or mourning while a few souls who understand gather in the cemeteries and take a moment to honor the tragedy of a life cut short.
G.K. Chesterton’s poem cuts to a different point. The dead, he argues, died because they wished to know. To avoid being at the bar-b-que, or taking an ignorance stance and have a dead soul they fought and died to show that they were alive.
I will leave that idea as an appropriate tribute: the dead we celebrate are the ones who lived.
For a War Memorial
G. K. Chesterton
(SUGGESTED INSCRIPTION PROBABLY NOT SUGGESTED BY THE COMMITTEE)
The hucksters haggle in the mart
The cars and carts go by;
Senates and schools go droning on;
For dead things cannot die.
A storm stooped on the place of tombs
With bolts to blast and rive;
But these be names of many men
The lightning found alive.
If usurers rule and rights decay
And visions view once more
Great Carthage like a golden shell
Gape hollow on the shore,
Still to the last of crumbling time
Upon this stone be read
How many men of England died
To prove they were not dead.