Today marks the holiday our country has every year to remember those who've fought and died in foreign lands for America's benefit. When I was growing up Memorial day was mostly just a long weekend with some parades and a whole lot of flags. We were told to think back on the soldiers whose lives had been given in conflicts like World War II or Korea, but as a 10 year old those wars seemed about as far away in the past as the days of King Arthur and his Camelot Court. During my adolescence there were a few flare-ups of actual combat. A couple hundred casualties occurred during the Desert Shield/Desert Storm operations, and I think a guy died in Grenada from a self-inflicted wound involving an unripe mango.
Nonetheless I come from a peacetime generation, one whose wars were fought in the pages of a textbook and on the screen of the local multiplex. It is a comforting thing to know that the soldiers you see dying will all get up after the camera stops rolling, collect their paychecks, and live to die another day. It was a comfort I hoped I would have for the rest of my life.
These days Memorial day is a very different holiday indeed. We have solemn proclamations of solidarity, lists of casualties in our newspapers and on our television screens, and most importantly we have people dying. Hundreds of them, thousands if you count our allies and friends. The children who grow up today will not be sheltered from the realities of war in the same way my generation was. They will grow up in a different world, harsher, crueler, less friendly. They may not have the cold war, as we did, but they have something far worse. A world where diplomacy is what you do before you shoot somebody, not instead of.
But Memorial day is not supposed to be about war, it is supposed to be about honoring the fallen soldiers. We should do that. There is a tendency in this country to pretend that all soldiers are heroes, like somehow putting on the uniform of the United States Army makes one a better man. It does not, and many of the soldiers who have fallen were bastards or psychos or worse. A few were heroes, most were average. Nonetheless they share one thing with each other and the people they fought. They are dead, and for that we should say a few words of respect. I can't help but think, though, that the more pressing matter right now is the soldiers who still live. We can't do anything for the dead soldiers but remember them, and I'll bet that were they alive today they'd wish we'd remembered them before they died and stopped it from happening in the first place.
That is what I find so disingenuous about all the pomp and circumstance we see around this day. President Bush called for a day of prayer for the fallen. A prayer for the fallen? What about a prayer for the falling? We were supposed to be out, or a reduced presence by now. We're not. The new date is 2006. Does anybody actually believe we're going to meet it?
We sent soldiers off to die in unarmored humvees while Haliburton slurped millions in graft from the government teat. Has this changed any? We went to war on a lie and a whim. What happened to those who enabled the subterfuge? Medals of freedom happened to them.
We are also failing to provide the promissed benefits and care to veterans who fought for our country and lived. VA medical care used to be among the best in the country, it has had its budget slashed recently, along with other important support structures. Why? A rising debt. Why do we have a rising debt (besides the war of course)? Tax cuts. We'd rather cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans than pay our veterans back for their service.
We'll remember their dead colleagues though. That doesn't cost us anything.
How can we honor the dying when we seem hell-bent on adding to their number?
Memorial day only works as a holiday when we're honoring those who died while trying to make sure that their numbers remain as low as possible in the future. When that's not the case, well, having a holiday to remember your sacrifice is pretty cold comfort compared to having a life.