Memorial Day is past, but reflections on its meaning remain. For some of us, remembering and honoring the cost in human lives that war demands was done through prayer. My tradition suggests two of them. One remembers before God those “who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.” The other gives God thanks “for all your servants who have laid down their lives in the service of their country.”
There are profound differences between them. Perhaps the greatest is that our nation has engaged in very few wars that have had much to do with the liberties we now enjoy. For my generation, and I suspect for the nation as a whole, the only “Good War” (Studs Terkel, 1984) in our lifetime was WWII. The majority of our armed conflicts have been politically motivated to: achieve territory; establish our credibility as a world power; satisfy a leader’s ego; create profitable opportunities for business; or make strategic moves against a presumed enemy through proxy conflicts in foreign lands. None of them are mutually exclusive, and you might want to add a few more of your own. For instance, some of our armed conflicts have been in defense of the liberties enjoyed by friendly nations that were under serious attack, and we have gone to their aid at the cost of young American lives. Nevertheless, popular sentiment asserts, with patriotic fervor, that those who have died have done so heroically in the defense of our freedoms. It sounds good and it feels good, but it’s not true.
They died in wars that had little to do with defending our freedoms, except, perhaps in the most tangential of ways. Moreover, I doubt that many of them died heroically. They didn’t want to die. They wanted to live, and enjoy life into old age. They didn’t give their lives or lay them down, their lives were taken from them. For that reason, I dislike the first of my tradition’s prayers. I think it plays into an unhealthy mythology about America and its wars. A good many of my friends don’t want to hear that. In fact, they get damn angry. They don’t want to hear that their buddy, their loved one, their high school classmate, died for something that had nothing to do with defending American freedoms. They especially don’t want to hear that they died in a war justified by falsified intelligence and murky motives that may have had something to do with business prospects for Halliburton, Lockheed, and other contractors. No! It has to be for freedom; to say otherwise is to be disloyal and unpatriotic.
On the other hand, consider the second prayer. It calls us to remember (with respect and honor) those who have died in the service of their country. I may be willing to accuse political leaders of making immoral decisions that send young men and women to war for no good reason, but at the same time I can, and do, honor the commitment and courage of those who serve in the military and are willing to go into combat in the service of their county.
It is especially right and proper that we honor them on Memorial Day, and even more right and proper that we continue to honor them by pressing national leaders to avoid war by seeking “peace with honor” wherever possible. That raises its own set of problems. Avoiding war does not mean isolationism. Nor does it mean, as some of my friends (see above) believe, that diplomacy and methods of defense other than armed conflict are namby-pamby, weak kneed, laying down like a doormat, surrendering our national dignity, while military action is a bold assertion that you don’t mess with the USA. They have romanticized war and the military to the extreme, which, I suspect, it is an emotional defense against the lingering fear that all those deaths may have been for nothing, at least nothing related to the liberties enjoyed by Americans. It’s better to shut that out, raise the flag, and celebrate heroic patriots.
They too need to be remembered in prayer.