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Re-Play: Revisioning Memorial Day

I originally uploaded this post on Memorial Day in 2020 and since things have not changed much in the ensuing 12 months, I figured I would post it again...

You can listen instead here if you prefer:

Today is Memorial Day, May 25th, 2020, and it will be celebrated in similar fashion around the country. Banners will be flown, flags will be waved and raised, patriotic hymns will be sung, and hypocritical politicians and military contractors will continue preparing for the next war. I propose that we celebrate Memorial Day differently by actively questioning 1) why we have so many dead to remember, and 2) what the government and corporate military industrial complex are doing to reduce the number of dead soldiers on future Memorial Days. The origins of Memorial Day aren’t completely agreed upon, but we know the celebrating of those killed while engaged in military duty has been part of our national heritage since before the Civil War. But it’s a hollow enterprise to celebrate dead soldiers, without doing anything to prevent future dead soldiers. In Sociology, we differentiate between formal and informal social control. All societies use some techniques to keep social order, otherwise chaos might ensue, and we call this social control. It can be legitimate and peaceful, or it can be violent and manipulative. Formal social control is carried out by authorized agents- the government, police, etc. and informal social control is carried out by our agents of socialization such as family, the media, our peers, etc. While both matter, most sociologists point to informal as being much more powerful than formal at guiding citizens’ behavior, because if we feel the ‘rules’ are actually our own creation/morality, we are less likely to challenge them, than if we feel they are imposed upon us and act only to avoid negative sanctions. The celebration of military members as heroes is an effective, and widely used, form of informal social control, common not just in the U.S., but in many other nations as well. When Colin Kaepernick and other athletes began kneeling during the National Anthem as a protest against (originally, racial) injustice in America, some people felt that current service members and veterans were being disrespected, regardless of the fact that many of these athletes made affirmative steps to point out they were not protesting the armed forces. The apparent logic was that if you kneel, then you disrespect the song and by definition disrespect our military and the dead. Even though this argument is fallacious, it is a good example of using the military as a litmus test of how much people love or don’t love our country. Another example is Memorial Day. By equating “love of country” with “celebrating dead soldiers” we are presented with a rigid and narrow definition of being American. A common narrative, of course, is that these soldiers died so that we could have “freedom”. Equally obvious is that most of the 200 or so sovereign nations on the earth also have freedom, and far fewer dead soldiers to show for it.

Using Memorial Day as informal social control takes away from the daily realities that veterans face and how they are treated during and after their service. The Military Times estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide, every day. If we truly value these people and memorialize their death, why don’t we make better efforts to protect them preemptively? In a compelling essay titled “The Poisonous Cult of the Military Hero”, military veteran Myke Cole laments how quick people are to thank him for his service and call him a hero with no notion of who he is. “Because what’s important isn’t who heroes are to themselves, but who they are to everyone else. Here, the hero label is put to work excusing evil, making it not just dehumanizing, but also fundamentally dangerous. Asking questions, getting to know another human being in all their complicated glory is hard work. The application of the hero label is far easier. But it serves no one. Not the veteran, who is denied their humanity and the desperately needed and potentially life-saving chance to rejoin the dust of the world … and not the political narrative, which leans on the cult of the military hero to advance some of the most divisive agendas of our time.” This leads to another problem with Memorial Day as a social control technique- it precludes a critical analysis of our military as a tool for U.S. imperialism. I direct the reader to Empire as a Way of Life, by William Appleman Williams, for a detailed explication of this point. Williams discusses the last 200 years of American empire building and the aggrandized role of the military, often working as an extension of the corporate sector. By shifting the focus to mourning the dead military members who brought us “freedom”, we are left with a one-sided national dialogue that paints any critical examination of the military as “unpatriotic”. On the contrary, as sociologist D. Stanley Eitzen has pointed out, questioning and analyzing the activities of your country are the first steps to improving it. Blindly following these agents of formal and informal social control prevents an honest discussion of whether these policies truly benefit the citizenry as a whole, or just one sector of our society. Our current war in Afghanistan is approaching the 20-year mark; can we say this war, and any others of the last 150 years, have been based on pure ideals instead of politics and greed? I believe it’s possible to honor the people who died in these wars, even while hating war itself. I mourn for them and their families and loved ones. But if we want to truly honor them on Memorial Day, I have a decidedly unradical suggestion to make. Let’s also use Memorial Day as a vehicle to celebrate people who strive for peace and humanity, working to keep America out of armed conflicts, thereby lowering the future body counts.

William Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump will all be featured participants at Memorial Day events, as will countless high-ranking military officials, though under the tenure of each, thousands of Americans died in military conflicts that brought little tangible benefit to them and other working- and middle-class citizens. We should be honoring Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, who were jailed over their anti-war activities. Let’s honor Hugh Thompson for turning his gun on fellow American troops to stop the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Let’s honor all those who challenge the legitimacy of a system that uses human life to advance the economic interests of the capitalist class. As Howard Zinn wrote in 1976, “the memory of the dead deserves a different dedication. A dedication to peace, to defiance of governments.”


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