The day is starting out with a heavy feeling in the air. It’s overcast, with humidity that hints that summer is just around the corner. A thick blanket of dew has covered the available surfaces, and the mourning doves are cooing their haunting moans as they look down upon it all from the power lines.
I’m a writer, and as such, it’s my job to attempt to accurately capture a feeling as succinctly as possible. If I had to put a word to the feeling of this early morning in one word, I’d call it somber.
I think that’s a perfect way for today to begin. Here in the US, it’s Memorial Day, a day when we pause our lives to remember the men and women and, unfortunately, a few children who fought and died as members of our armed forces.
We’ve got a very odd relationship with our soldiers in this country. We need them. Humanity in general has not been able to handle the idea of Utopia. Some whackadoo gets twitchy and itchy and bored and decides the best thing to do to alleviate the malaise is bomb something, shoot someone, or invade someplace.
As long as a sense of self exists in human beings, then there WILL be someone who wants their particular self to be at the top, and will do whatever it takes to get there.
War is inevitable.
“That’s awful cynical of you, Bethie.”
No. It’s just fact. It’s just how our world works, or at least how it’s worked so far. Every single era of human history has been wrought with (and often defined by) battle. Some wars were fought over land. Many, actually. Some wars were fought against oppression; all, depending on which side of the coin you’re on. Wars are fought over religion, which is singlehandedly the most inane reason to kill a bunch of someones, and also fought against religion, which is still wholly unreasonable.
As long as there are humans, there *will* be within us a sense of personal righteousness and justice that *will* differ from others, whatever the cause of the disagreement. And so far, we haven’t grown up enough to realize that we don’t have to pick up swords or guns or missiles in order to come to a mutually unsatisfactory compromise.
We’re getting there, though. Right now, I’d liken humanity to being in our early adulthood. We’ve passed the toddler years, where everything was a temper tantrum. We’ve somehow struggled through the awkward trials of adolescence, when everything was wicked unfair and no one else could possibly understand what we were talking about. Gawd. We are on the cusp of leaving the late teens, where we truly started to think with a broader, more mature outlook, and now we’re standing on the precipice of real comprehension…we acknowledge that there IS a future, that we CAN shape it, and that wars and killing and dying do not HAVE to be the only way to get us there.
The age of the internet has finally allowed us to start making leaps and bounds to the period of understanding and acceptance that will lead to the majority of people settling differences with words and symbolism instead of relying on the old stalwarts of human conflict, Mr. Stabby and Mrs. Kablooie. We can see that it is possible. And, we even want it. As a group, more and more of us are actually truly wanting peace, not just saying it to look good.
For the first time in human history, we can click a few buttons and look into the real lives of the people we’re supposed to hate. We can see the mothers of the particular group we’re shooting while they weep over the bodies of their sons and daughters, just as we are doing ourselves on our own side of the world. We can see smiling babies and grinning old men who are both happily gumming down some fresh fish at a market. We can watch a YouTube clip of a Dad sitting proudly in a graduation ceremony for his kid, and a Mom licking her finger to brush off a smudge of dirt as her daughter rolls her eyes.
For the first time, anyone with an internet connection can see the people we are supposed to hate and fear. And while we used to be able to pretend that every *fill in classically hostile nation or group of your choice* was bad, the internet has proven that not to be the case. MOST of the aforethought “bad” people aren’t, in fact, bad, and we’re having a really hard time hating them enough to send someone to end their lives.
And yet, we cannot ignore facts. As much as we want to think that everyone is eager to join us on this path filled with rainbows and unicorns, we can’t deny that they don’t. There are people out there who still want war, and are willing to attack and kill those who don’t.
It makes for a very awkward relationship with our military. We don’t want to fight, yet we have to. We don’t want any of our guys killing other people, but they must.
See, I’m like most modern Americans. I hate the idea of war. I’m ready to settle everything with thumb wrestling and move on with life. That said, I love and respect the men and women who volunteer to fight the wars we haven’t yet been able to figure out how to prevent.
It’s hard to reconcile the two seemingly dichotomous view points.
Maybe this difficulty is not really that modern of an issue. Did you know that Memorial Day wasn’t an official federal holiday until 1971?
Do you know what other federal holidays were officially observed before Memorial Day? Almost every single other one. The only newly-proposed nationally observed holiday that came after Memorial Day was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, federally adopted in 1983.
It took our country nearly two hundred years to decide that the scores upon scores of soldiers that died to a) get us here, and b) keep us going, deserved an official day of remembrance. Almost 200 years before the very government that sent these men, women, and children to battle deigned to officially acknowledge their ultimate sacrifice. I’m not kidding when I say we’ve got a very odd relationship with our armed forces!
Perhaps that’s why so many folks see today as nothing more than the “unofficial start of summer,” a reason to go to a CUH-RAY-ZEE sale down at Ed’s Auto Barn where they’ll be treated like a king with these CUH-RAY-ZEE deals, or to pull the blankets back over their throbbing heads in a mix of pain and shame at the memories of dancing on the picnic table with their shirt off at the first BBQ of the season. There are a good amount of folks who will see today as nothing more than a free day off.
But it’s not hyperbole to say that today is not at all “free”. It’s not eye-rolling, over-the-top patriotism to stop and remember that there was, and still IS, a cost.
We are a nation because we decided that England could ‘eff off. By the end of our American Revolution, it is estimated that nearly 25,000 soldiers (men and children) died from either their primary wounds or infections from said wounds while they served.
That doesn’t seem like a big number, especially for a war, so let’s put it into perspective. My town has a population of about 4,300 people. In the American Revolution, almost 6 of my entire town’s worth of people died fighting to make us a nation. Six of my whole town…gone.
In the US Civil War, around 620,000 soldiers died. That’s 147 of my towns. Or, all of Boston. Every man, woman, and child in Boston.
In the World Wars, we lost a combined total of around 520,000. 123 of my towns, or all of Tucson. All of it.
And Vietnam, the war that wasn’t a war, the one the US people suddenly didn’t want but our government kept at anyway, saw nearly 60,000 casualties of US soldiers. 14 of my town.
But that’s history, right? That’s in the past.
Our current “war on terror” that began in 2001 and has shifted focus here and there, has produced around 6,700 US military casualties. That’s a town and a half of mine, completely gone. While I’m writing this, the totally slowly grows.
That’s 6,700 volunteers, too. No draft. No compulsion or collusion. Soldiering is not mandatory, as it is in some nations. Six thousand seven hundred men and women not only intentionally enlisted in our armed forces to fight the wars our government elected to join, but paid the ultimate price. They went into service knowing there was a good chance they weren’t coming home, and they went anyway.
They went to stop people from oppressing others.
They went to prevent the bombers from moving across the water to our “greener pastures”.
They went so that our government wouldn’t have to force quivering masses of jelly like me to pick up a gun and defend myself.
I wish they didn’t have to go. I wish there weren’t wars. I wish that terrorists didn’t exist and that every insane despot got the mental help they needed in time to stave off a horrifyingly brutal dictatorship. I wish people didn’t want to kill other folks, and I wish they weren’t getting sick of bombing their own people and looking across the ocean toward ours. I wish so many things. But wishing doesn’t make it happen. Wanting doesn’t keep us safe.
We stayed, and they went for us. In doing so, over a million and a half have laid down their lives so that we could keep living ours.
Whatever your feelings on war, please, PLEASE remember that no matter how much you wish war doesn’t exist, it does. Put the mustard down and set the beer-fueled antics aside for a moment to remember that our “free” day had one helluva price tag, and take time today to honor those who selflessly picked up the tab. It is honestly the very least we all can do.
Thus concludes a Musing for Memorial Day mourning on Monday, May 25, 2015.