Posted by: Catherine Lugg | May 27, 2011

Thoughts on this Memorial Day

Well, another Memorial Day weekend is a upon us. I am basically ambivalent about this holiday. When I was a kid, it was CLEARLY the most important holiday in my small Appalachian community. Not only did nearly all the men of my father’s generation march in the parade (either as WWII or Korea Veterans–or occasionally both), but the Girl and Boy Scouts marched, the Volunteer Fire Companies from the region marched, as did the “farm team” and Little Leaguers, the VFW members and the American Legionnaires. The “Ladies Auxiliaries” of all of the adult (and men-only) organizations also marched or helped on logistical support. And of course, the local high school marching band was there to kick things off (and we usually had 3 parades to march that day–in wool uniforms with vinyl overlays–I love the 1970s–SNARK!). After the parade and service at the local cemetary, families would decamp to their homes, dining on the chicken barbecue prepared by the local volunteer fire company (whose members started cooking at 5 AM).

It was the only holiday that everyone held in common and you WERE to be attendance. This was especially true in an area that had historically had one of the highest per capita enlistments in the military. For generations, the military was seen as a way to “get out and grow up” for many men, and then starting in the 1970s, increasingly young women. Even the disaster that was Viet Nam didn’t dim support for joining the military–at least for the young people from my home area.

Yet, today, enthusiasm for this holiday is waning. Part of this is fewer and fewer people serve in the US Military, including from where I hail. And my father’s generation–many of whom were prodigious chain-smokers–is largely gone. Furthermore, with the never-ending wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the local young people are increasingly loathe to sign up for what will be endless deployments–which is a telling cultural shift. The endless deployments have broken a long-standing social bond, which was that you served your time in a combat zone and then you’re done. Except in the current military, you’re never done. Even if you’re no longer in the active military, you can be called up. While the situation is not as acute as it was in 2006, things still are worrisome.

And so, as another Memorial Day approaches I’m full of ambivalence. I have lovely memories from my childhood of an entire rural town turning out for the biggest day of the year. But that memory doesn’t address today’s needs or realities. Yes, we need to honor our veterans and active duty military people. But, as citizens, we also need to ask our elected leaders hard questions about why we’re so eager to ship young Americans into combat when the point of the combat is completely unclear. Bin Laden is dead, and we’re still in Afghanistan. We’re still in Iraq, although Iraq had NOTHING to do with 9/11 and was absolutely no military threat to the US prior to our invasion. I suspect these efforts have more about projecting an imperial military presence, then actually “defending America.” (from what? Semi-literate religious nuts who are steeped in 7th century thinking? Really?) These wars have nearly devolved into a truly bad Monty Python skit–except very real human beings continue to be hurt and die.

Perhaps the best way to honor our military people is to pull them out of harm’s way and make sure their benefits and services are fully funded for the rest of their lives (I have a particular loathing for chest thumping politicians who claim to support “the troops” and then cut the hell out of veterans’ benefits–all in the name of fiscal discipline–they are beneath contempt) . And yes, a well-attended Memorial Day parade is still a cultural requirement. Our service people deserve nothing less…..

Have a good holiday!

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