With only distant connections to the military, I usually think of Memorial Day as a holiday to honor other people. Them.
The servicemembers, over a million of them, who’ve died answering their country’s call of duty. The ones who would have died but for 21st century medicine, which kept them alive even if it couldn’t make them whole again. All those who put themselves at risk of death or grave injury, and who wonder why they were spared when their friends were not. The journalists who lost their lives trying to make sure these stories would be told.
The returned servicemembers lost to suicide almost every day now, to say nothing of the ones still breathing but debilitated by addiction and other mental illnesses brought on by the horrors of war.
It’s a day to honor all the ones who have to live with the grief and loss every day, not only on the last Monday in May.
Like many Americans, I get to observe these sacrifices from a safe vantage point, where I can choose how much to be involved. To recall, or learn for the first time, the extent of the hardship and pain taken on by strangers for the sake of our shared nationality. To reach back through the ages for their words, their hopes, their explanations. To reckon with how unable and unwilling our government has been to take seriously their burdens before, during, or after deployments — and how they volunteer anyway. By now it’s a well-worn refrain how little of the population shoulders the burdens of the nation’s physical defense. The nation’s costs of battle, and battle-readiness, are almost exclusively on them.
Lately, though, a more troubling trend is emerging. As a nation, we seem to be abandoning not just the necessities of individual service in the public defense, but the very idea of a single national identity that binds us together in common cause. As “we the people” segregate into like-minded communities, we increasingly see each other — fellow Americans — as existential threats to “our” way of life. Concluding that the other side is hostile and corrupted beyond all reason, people have begun to muse about how a modern civil war might play out.
Whatever the nuanced motivations of the individual servicemembers who have suffered and died on our behalf, it’s safe to say that an entrenched mutual hatred, fear, and distrust of each other is not what they had in mind. If nothing else, I suspect our fallen were mostly under the impression that we were all us — that they were enlisting for us, giving up careers and relationships for us, relocating for us, deploying for us, going without the comforts of home and civil society for us, facing their fears for us, going through hell for us, seeing their friends die grisly, unfair deaths for us. Giving that last full measure of devotion for us. As wrong as we are to quarantine the costs of war among the few of us willing to volunteer, we compound the damage by effectively disowning each other in civilian life.
Read the full essay on Medium.