On Memorial Day we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire.

I grew up in the era of the draft. Young men by the hundreds of thousands were remanded into the military under penalty of law. They were not sent to defend their homes and families against an invader, but to Vietnam to fight a war whose significance was hard to explain. (In retrospect, we lost and American life went on more-or-less as before. So what was that all about?)

Tens of thousands died there. Others came back alive, but left arms or legs behind. Some came back whole, but said little about their experiences afterwards. Some avoided the draft, either legally through student deferments (or whatever other loopholes were available when their names came up), or illegally, by going to Canada or Sweden, or (like Muhammad Ali) to prison.

I imagine that some must have had the kinds of positive experiences I liked to read about in formulaic World War II novels: They came of age. They discovered inside themselves a strength and courage that they had not previously been aware of. They bonded with other young men they probably would not have met any other way, and found friends for life.

This is all speculative for me, because I was never drafted. The draft wound down just in time to miss my age cohort: We had to register, and they held a lottery that told us what order we would have been drafted in, but no draft was held. So whether I would have died, lost a limb, locked the whole experience away in a dark corner of my mind, escaped to Toronto, gone or jail, or found myself — who can say? I was there for the beginning of the all-volunteer army, and I didn’t volunteer.

While I am personally grateful to have had the chance to make that choice, I am ambivalent about the policy that allowed me to do so. I sympathize with the Jeffersonian vision expressed in the opening of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …”. Jefferson and Madison pictured a militia-based military, where ordinary people defended their towns and farms, rather than a standing army that could be sent on imperial missions, or maybe could develop its own interests, separate from the rest of the country. When soldiering becomes a profession, they realized, military and civilian cultures can start to go in different directions. And that’s dangerous “to the security of a free State”.

That divergence has been happening, slowly but steadily, for almost half a century now. It hurts America in two different ways. On the one hand, we get chicken hawks: neo-conservative intellectuals or tough-talking radio hosts, who know that neither they nor their sons or daughters will ever be called on to back up their geopolitical theories or their jingoistic rhetoric. If anyone ends up getting shot it, it will be the rural kid whose college fund vanished after Dad lost his factory job, or the ghetto kid who sees no other way out than to sign away a few years of his life and take a chance on losing all of it.

On the other hand, families who maintain a military tradition without financial necessity may come to see themselves not as representatives of America, but as a breed apart from it — a better, braver breed that has been forced to deal with violent reality in a way that the rest of us avoid, and who therefore deserve to rule. If a fascist takeover ever succeeds in this country, it will be due not just to some Trump-like clown at the top, but also to warriors up and down the line who no longer respect civilian America.

These thoughts come to me on Memorial Day, because I have no one in particular to remember: Not only have I never been shot at, but no one close to me has died in war. Our soldiers continue to serve in war zones in Afghanistan and in parts of Iraq and Syria, but no one I know is in danger. I care about those wars only to the extent that I choose to care. If I ignore them, they will not slap me in the face by claiming someone important to me.

Memorial Day didn’t used to be like this. It began after the Civil War, a conflict that killed about 2% of the population, and is still responsible for nearly half of the total of Americans who have ever died in battle. It began, in other words, at a time when nearly everyone had someone to remember.

I picture the early Memorial Days as bittersweet holidays, full of personal anecdotes about the dead, respect, regret, and a touch of gratitude for the chance to be living in peace. You might take your children to the cemetery to tell them stories about a father or uncle they remembered either dimly or not at all, while silently you hoped that you would never have to visit their graves on a some future Memorial Day. If you prayed, it was not for the greater glory of the United States, but for peace.

For many, perhaps most of us, particularly those in the educated or managerial classes, that personal connection has been lost. We have no graves to visit, and we never seriously worry about our children going to war, because that’s not their job. They’re destined for colleges and offices and the exciting digital future. Bullets and bombs are for the lower classes to deal with.

What replaces the personal is pageantry. Rather than a reminder of the cost of war, this holiday has become either a content-free weekend marking the start of summer, or a celebration of the military. Friday night, I saw on television an example that was simultaneously trivial and ridiculous: The Boston Red Sox played the Seattle Mariners, and both teams marked the Memorial Day weekend by wearing caps of Army green with camouflage visors. (The caps are being marketed; yesterday on a sidewalk, I passed a young man wearing one.)

The changes in Memorial Day are part of a larger growth of nationalistic ritual and worship of things military. I have always been uncomfortable singing the national anthem at baseball games (a practice that began during World War I, in the 1918 World Series; perhaps this misappropriation was the true origin of the curse that prevented both teams — Red Sox and Cubs — from winning a world championship for the rest of the 20th century), because I don’t see what is patriotic about playing or watching baseball. By now, of course, that practice extends to virtually all sports events, to the point that football quarterback Colin Kaepernick could create a national controversy simply by kneeling down.

After 9-11, many teams started putting a second patriotic song (“God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful”) somewhere else in the program, like during the 7th inning stretch. Last summer, the college-summer-league team in my town began including a moment where all veterans in the house were asked to stand and be applauded by the rest of us; not just on a particular day, but every game.

This Thursday, I was at the graduation ceremony of a nearby community college. It also began with the national anthem, included “God Bless America” later in the program, and had a moment when all graduating veterans stood to be applauded. Again, nationalism and militarism seemed pasted onto this event. Why not, for example, the state song or the college song? We were told that graduates came from many different nations: Why were they required to participate in an American patriotic ritual? (Why, for that matter, are baseball players, many of whom come from Latin American countries that have no cause to remember us or our soldiers kindly?) Trump’s planners even looked into the possibility of military vehicles adding spectacle to his inaugural parade, as they did to the old Soviet Mayday celebrations.

As actual soldiers become more and more distant, we are offered the Soldier and the Veteran as symbols. They are to be honored and worshiped, not empathized with, or even taken care of. (They are, in essence, getting the Jesus treatment: Worship Him as Lord, but pay no attention to the actual person. Ignore that liberal Sermon on the Mount, or much of anything else He said.) We are offered the Nation and the Military as objects of veneration, and encouraged to take an imperial pride in their world-bestriding power.

I find myself missing the bittersweet holiday Memorial Day started out to be. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to have a day where we appreciate the huge difference in scale between the Nation’s ambitions and the costs that will filter down into our own lives? Or, perhaps, to recognize the ways that we have been insulated from those costs, which have not vanished, but are borne by someone else instead?

Memorial Day itself is becoming something to mourn for. Once a bittersweet recognition of the toll assessed by military power, it now too often becomes a celebration of that power.

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Comments

  • Susan Schnur  On May 29, 2017 at 8:18 am

    I have thought this for years. We NEED that draft.

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 10:44 am

      Why? We don’t need a larger military with more people in it. A future draft would include women and wouldn’t have any student deferments. And no sane military commander would want to be placed in charge of soldiers who didn’t want to be there. A draft would be purely disruptive, because it would motivate the young people who would be affected by it along with their families to rise up in opposition. At best you’d have protests; at worst a revolution.

      What we NEED is a gradual draw-down of the military, with spending redirected to infrastructure projects. We spend as much on the military as the next six countries combined; we could cut spending in half and still have a world-dominating military force.

      • Jonathan Coumes  On May 29, 2017 at 11:36 am

        I’m on board with the draw-down, Larry. But I think what Susan might have been getting at was something a little broader than what was immediately apparent.

        A shrinking of the military in conjunction with an unavoidable draft, along with, ideally, an option for other-than-military service (Peace Corps, Americorps, etc) would accomplish at least two things:

        First, it would begin to do what large military drafts have done since the birth of the nation states: mix people of all classes up together, helping to impede what Doug was talking about above, not just the economic but the total societal isolation of discrete social classes.

        And second, if you can make said draft really unavoidable, it helps to bring home the dangers of warmongering, both to the senators and congressmen who do it and to the GOP and hawkish Democratic bases that have supported them in the past, since, as Doug said, it wasn’t their children who’d be going off to die.

        Finally, there’s something to be said for de-professionalizing the military; until 1946 we had no standing army and only built one up in response to a war. If it’s impossible to really diminish the size of the military, we could at least rotate people into and out of it rather than creating a permanent military class.

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 12:41 pm

        A draft would definitely result in a military drawn from many different segments of society. So would universal conscription such as Israel has, where everyone automatically serves in the military when they reach a certain age. Adding the options of Peace Corps, VISTA, etc. would be helpful. But the resistance of people to submit to this would be insurmountable. As I mentioned, no military officer wants to command people who don’t want to be there – this is why “fragging” went on in Vietnam. And you definitely don’t want to have unwilling conscripts in Peace Corps. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1980s, and even with the difficulty of getting into the program, a significant number didn’t make it through the first two years and were sent home. You definitely don’t want to force anyone to participate in that if they don’t want to.

        Universal participation in national service is a worthy goal, but ultimately people have to want it and not do it because the alternative is prison.

      • MD  On May 29, 2017 at 3:51 pm

        In reply to “Larry Benjamin On May 29, 2017 at 12:41 pm”:
        I disagree, everyone should do – even the ones who don’t want to. That’s what makes it a unifying experience. Everyone is expected to do two years of service when they are 18-20. It could be the military, or it could be the other things that have been mentioned (Peace Corps, VISTA, Americorps, or whatever), but everyone does it. Colleges look for it, employers look for it – it’s just accepted that everyone does it.

        Yes, there will be resistance to the idea, but lots of good and ultimately successful ideas meet resistance.

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 7:15 pm

        Maybe you think everyone should serve whether they want to or not, but the actual people who would have to handle these unwilling conscripts wouldn’t agree. As a manager myself, I don’t want anyone working for me who doesn’t want to be there – I can just imagine how disruptive a bunch of resentful “volunteers” would be.

        What would have to happen is a gradual shift in the culture where public service would be valued, to the point where even if some people would prefer to not participate, they would do so anyway out of fear of ridicule. From what I can tell, this is why some people joined the military in the Second World War.

      • 1mime  On May 29, 2017 at 7:24 pm

        There is also the undeniable truth that many joined because they had to and became much better people in the process of serving. They acquired discipline, skills, respect for authority, and how to interact with others. Many learned to revere their country for the first time. Many saw valor and courage that was selfless and learned from it.

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 9:25 pm

        Yes, I’m sure that happened. Others murdered their COs by lobbing grenades at them. My question is how many unwilling soldiers the military can or should absorb. One of my friends was a Marine Drill Instructor for 20 years – I’ll ask him and get back to you.

        And don’t even get me started about Peace Corps. I don’t want even one volunteer who isn’t 100% committed. I don’t know about VISTA, Americorps, or other domestic programs; I expect that a lot of the people who don’t want to be there would just spend their “service” getting stoned or trying to score with the locals.

        I knew a guy who grew up in East Germany, and he told me their military was a joke – most of the conscripts had no respect whatsoever for the institution. I think the same thing would happen here with forced conscription.

        Again, we should be thinking about how to change the cultural mindset (if that’s possible) so public service becomes something desirable, and not forcing public service on people because we think it’s “good for them.”

        The best outcome we could hope for would be an immediate, widespread uprising by young people who would take to the streets when they learned that they would be drafted. Because they would.

      • 1mime  On May 29, 2017 at 9:30 pm

        A good place to start would be teaching our young people to respect the institution of government and public service……

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 9:39 pm

        Sounds good to me. It would help if we had people in government who were worthy of respect.

      • 1mime  On May 29, 2017 at 9:50 pm

        Here, here.

      • Kim Cooper  On May 30, 2017 at 3:48 pm

        Somehow, I don’t think whether one wants to be there or not really has much effect. We fought and won WWII with conscripts and volunteers, we fought and lost Viet Nam with a draft and volunteers. Many of the current volunteers do it for economic reasons rather than backing the wars themselves. Humans are such social animals that once you get through boot camp and indoctrinated into the service, most guys are pretty much with the program. Women, being more practical and realistic than men, might have more trouble with it, but that remains to be seen.

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 30, 2017 at 8:29 pm

        Tell an officer who got fragged in Vietnam that it doesn’t make a difference if soldiers want to be there or not.

        Maybe some Second World War conscripts (and volunteers who felt pressured) didn’t really *want* to be there (no sane person would), but stuck it out because the entire country was behind them. Everyone believed that the cause was righteous. That hasn’t been the case with any war since then. Our leaders have a duty to not involve the country in any war that a significant percentage of the public opposes. They’ve either got to pick their wars more carefully, or do a better job selling the lie than they have so far. Universal conscription isn’t going to make a bad war into a good one; it will only make the protests larger and more violent.

      • Kim Cooper  On May 29, 2017 at 6:27 pm

        Since it doesn’t appear to be politically likely to defer the money from the military to infrastructure repair, I propose we assign the military to oversee, and pay for, the infrastructure repair. They can hire and train local workers as they do it. It would reduce the need for wars to keep them busy, and we might actually get some of our infrastructure brought up to date. Remember, the way Eisenhower talked them into doing all those national highways, etc. was for defense. We need everything repaired for the same reason, right?

      • 1mime  On May 29, 2017 at 6:33 pm

        I like your idea, Kim! Plus, enlistees would gain some practical, employable skills upon exit from their military service. What’s not to like?

      • Kim Cooper  On May 29, 2017 at 6:36 pm

        Thank you. I’ve been trying to get this idea out there — and I’ve been trying to get my spouse to Tweet it to Trump, who does read her Tweets. If worded so he thinks it’s his own idea, he might do it….

      • 1mime  On May 29, 2017 at 6:57 pm

        Hey – draw some pictures with your suggestions…he has an aversion to text.

      • Kim Cooper  On May 30, 2017 at 3:57 pm

        I’m not that good at drawing — What do you imagine that drawing would be of? I’ll give it a try if we can come up with something good. Trump conducting, orchestra-like, a huge project of earth-movers and men?

      • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 7:17 pm

        Sounds good to me, but then, I’m not in the military. I live in a city with a large military presence, and recently I overheard some young soldiers in a bar, complaining about how their chances for advancement would be improved if there was a war. I can just imagine how they’d react to being told that they would be spending the next few years repairing bridges.

      • Kim Cooper  On May 30, 2017 at 3:36 pm

        Well, clearly it needs to be arranged so that they can get promoted while repairing bridges. Good point. (Somehow, killing people in order to get promoted seems immoral to me, but then, I’m just a woman, I don’t understand this testosterone poisoning thing….)

      • jh  On May 29, 2017 at 11:03 pm

        I would prefer that those who vote for or advocate for war are required to serve in the battlefront. I would also require that their families be drafted as well. No age limit. No deferments. No excuses. They can be on their death bed in the battle front. By battlefront, I mean this: you wear the body armor, you don’t get your own personal body guards, you don’t get to be a journalist or file clerk. You have to work as a soldier. That skin in the game is necessary for that certain male that prefers posturing and preening.

  • Annie  On May 29, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Another point might be the dichotomy between the accolades offered the vet and the reality when they return from duty. The care at the VA hospitals are compromised as well as the access and growing need of mental health care and acclimating into the work force. Recognizing vets at sporting events doesn’t go nearly far enough with the needs they may have after returning from active duty.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On May 29, 2017 at 8:42 am

    Thank you for this heartfelt piece. Your theme seems to be one of connection versus separation. I am of your age vis-a-vis Vietnam. My elders would recount WWII in terms of who they met and the way it hewed their lives via the G. I. Bill and the like. Not only was it patriotic to serve, my sense is that many wanted to serve. Like the public schools, virtually everyone went to them, and while they weren’t perfect, it was a connecting experience. Nowadays, as you say, these institutions are in the service of separation, and it trivializes these times of remembrance. While there was plenty “bad” about those times (outright prejudice…), there were ways in which we were Americans — not priveleged ones versus downtrodden ones.

  • Anonymous  On May 29, 2017 at 8:51 am

    I have become uncomfortable with the military worship also. It reallyndawned on me watching the start of the Indianapolis 500 race yesterday. I am a military wife whose husband servered during the Vietnam war. Although he was not on the frontlines he was still in harms way. I spent the year he was gone worrying that he wouldn’t get to see the child I was carrying at the time. I do not have a problem with the athletes who are kneeling. They certainly are not being disrespectful,just protesting.

  • Jerry Ross  On May 29, 2017 at 9:49 am

    False patriotism, elitist indifference, jingoistic pride, an emerging warrior class, macho imperialism, commercial exploitation of military garb and national symbols, confusion between god, country, and morals. You’ve said it all! I fear our country has more to mourn than it realizes this Memorial Day. Sadly, I couldn’t agree more with your commentary.

  • joeirvin  On May 29, 2017 at 10:06 am

    Dwight Eisenhower warned us … and we didn’t listen.

  • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 10:48 am

    The proof that the founders did not envision a permanent, standing army is that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution does not allow Congress to fund the Army for more than two years at a time. This was to allow for the funding of citizens’ militias, to deal with temporary problems like foreign invasion or domestic insurrection, which would then be disbanded once the problem was over.

    There is no similar limit to Navy funding because navies require expensive ships that would have potential lifespans of more than two years.

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On May 29, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    141.

    It’s been 42 years and I still remember my draft lottery number. I was 16 in 1975, like you, was not called up. I, and my father, a US Navy verteran were very ambivalent about Vietnam. Still don’t know what I would have done. Served. Bailed to Canada. Preemptively joined the Air Force?

    But the sns and daughters of wealth and privilege no longer have any skin inthe game. It is clearly distorting our foreign policy. Succinctly distilled by George Calin – “Do what we want or we’ll BOMB YA! Especially brown people. If you’ve got some brown people in your country, LOOK OUT!”

    • Lainey  On June 9, 2017 at 10:39 pm

      It’s a plausere to find someone who can identify the issues so clearly

  • GJacq726  On May 29, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Both my dad and uncle are retired military officers. As a comment to my post of this article, my uncle offers:

    “This guy needs to listen closely to the stories during the National Memorial Day concert.”

    To your point, not sure many will or do watch that.

  • Geriatrichorse  On May 29, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Thank you. You have expressed how I feel about Memorial Day so much more eloquently than I could. Therefore, on this day our family chooses a private observance–uncle lost on Bataan, and ancestors gone before.

  • Stan Buchanan  On May 29, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    I just want to put a word in here for the veterans of WW II I knew as a child and young man. One of my high school teachers had landed in Normandy on D-Day and had, in effect, walked from the English Channel into Germany with the rest of his infantry division. He wanted us to know that he wished none of us would have to repeat his experience or see the things he had had to see on the way. But he would never speak of his experience in detail–it was just too painful for him.

    I also met a man who was a gunner on a B-24, US Eighth Air Force, who had flown on a raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. He survived, but he said he could still see, after all those decades, his friends being shot out of the sky. The fields were heavily defended, and the Germans knew they were coming.

    My point, I guess, is that these were just a couple of regular guys. They were put in harm’s way, but went willingly, I think, because they knew what was at stake. I’m not sure that any of our military, certainly since Vietnam and maybe since Korea, have ever been certain, and without a doubt, about what they’re fighting for.

    Anyway, thanks for the column. You’ve hit just the right note.

  • weftalone  On May 29, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    Today our very small town celebrated Memorial Day. A small parade of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, veterans (90’s to 20’s). Local folks who spoke of the service of her father, a Quilt made by local ladies and presented to an elderly vet who was the driving force behind our small town memorial to veterans living and dead and many local civil servants. The focus was on the dedication and sacrifice and the recognition of the life long effect of war. You may be detached from those who served- those who know men and women who did not make it home. i agree we should not celebrate the empire- but acknowledge those who served when called upon.

  • Herb Feinzig  On May 29, 2017 at 10:20 pm

    The problem described is real but a different solution is called for. National service for two years, whether military or civilian. All men and women able to contribute, teachers, soldierrs, medical, all giving time, effort, energy. Not only closer to each other, but more aware of the politics and intentions of those who would lead. Something we need.

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 29, 2017 at 11:00 pm

      Read my comments on this. While national service sounds like a great idea, in practice you would be inflicting a bunch of unwilling participants onto the people who run these programs. What we need to do first is change the culture to encourage public service as an obligation, not a punishment.

      In other words, the impetus has to arise from below, not be forced down from above.

    • jh  On May 29, 2017 at 11:21 pm

      I think a forced national service would not be as healthy as it sounds. Some may enjoy that ‘team bonding’ experience. However, not everyone is like that.

      A mandatory service would probably create more trauma than it’s worth.
      Nothing about the army screams democratic values. It is an authoritarian, abusive structure and intense group tribalism. Not everyone will be able to handle that kind of stress and that stress may lead to violence.

      As someone who has been a loner all my life, I’d probably be one of those targeted because I just don’t get into that crap team building shit. And … I might respond in a sub-optimal way to get my revenge.

  • Bobby Lee  On May 30, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    This one brought tears to my eyes, Doug. We have lost so much since the days of my childhood. The respect, the empathy, it’s gone.

  • Megan Jennings  On June 7, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    http://io9.gizmodo.com/american-gods-vulcan-is-everything-that-scares-me-abou-1795761610

    So in the same vein as the Sift post below, I thought that the choice of Vulcan in American Gods was a good one. Though, I wish they had made it more subtle and perhaps extended it through to another episode. It was a bit in-the-face with the political commentary as this article goes into:https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2017/06/06/the-silly-preachy-politics-of-american-gods-are-ruining-the-show/#64bfbabb7a55

    But I still feel like the Gizmodo article articulates better that worship of America as a militaristic nation (in conjunction with the Sift post below) is unnerving and honestly feels less patriotic to me- it’s not the America I’d like to be proud of or patriotic of. Like the author of the Weekly Sift, I find the rituals surrounding military worship & “America” very disturbing and uncomfortable. And these two articles do a great job of articulating that, which I struggle with. Anyway, last article on this subject: https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/american-gods-recap-6-jesus-vulcan/ I thought this might be interesting to you too. ❤

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