Monday, May 25, 2015

Defining (and Redefining) Memorial Day

My father, of blessed  memory, was a decorated combat veteran of World War II.  Like many young men of his generation, he had never expected to be a soldier, but he was well aware it could happen, given what was going on in Europe.  He had only recently gotten married, but then, he was drafted into the Army and sent overseas to fight.  My mother and he corresponded faithfully, but there were long periods of time when she didn't hear from him, and she didn't know if he was dead or alive.  As it turned out, he was wounded (and received a Purple Heart), but he fully recovered, and I can only imagine the joy my mother felt when they were reunited.

I was born in 1947, another of the millions of kids who were part of the post-war Baby Boom generation.  But when I was growing up, I truly cannot recall my father ever discussing the war.  In fact, years later, I found his Purple Heart, and I also found several of my mother's letters to him, which he had kept in his wallet for so many years.  But he never talked about any of it with me, nor with my sister. Perhaps he talked to my mother about his experiences, or perhaps he talked to his friends, some of whom had also served.  But from what I have been told, his silence about the war was not unique-- many of the men who had been through it wanted to put the memories away and move forward.  They had answered the call and served their country, but they did not see that as something unusual.  They knew that previous generations had been asked to serve in the military.  Some had died fighting for their country.  My father and his friends seemed to see themselves as the lucky ones-- they had served and they had survived, and now they could move on with their lives.   

I grew up in an era where attitudes about war changed dramatically.  The war in Vietnam evoked conflicting and contentious attitudes in many of us.  I started off supporting it, but gradually turned against it, as did Walter Cronkite (who contrary to myth was not in any way a "liberal" at that time). And while it is an urban legend that returning soldiers from that war were spat on (the author of this article even wrote a well-researched book debunking this myth, it is no myth that returning soldiers were rarely greeted with the same pride and gratitude as those from World War II.  And it is also true that a number of young men of that era, some of whom would later go on to gain political power, found ways to avoid serving.  This included members of both parties (Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton to cite two examples).  And for those who did serve, some to this day remain traumatized be the experience.

When I was a kid, commemorating the great victory that we achieved in World War II was cause for celebration on Memorial Day.  Yes, it was also the official start of the summer; and yes, it was often a great day for a picnic.  But for many Americans, it was mainly a day for parades, for showing the flag, and for visiting the graves of departed veterans and expressing gratitude for their sacrifice.  These days, it seems Memorial Day is more about the picnics than about the patriotism. I recently read an article where an elderly veteran remarked sadly that fewer and fewer people come out to the parades each year.  And there are probably fewer people who visit the graves of departed veterans:  I admit to not going as often as I should, but I have the feeling I'm not the only one who can say that.

It also saddens me to see Memorial Day politicized:  for example, nearly every year, certain politicians (many of whom never served) criticize anyone who was against the Vietnam War, or more recently, anyone who opposed the Iraq War.  There's a certain irony in calling into question the patriotism of those who protest what they see as unjust wars-- I mean, if previous generations fought for our freedom, doesn't that include the freedom to peacefully protest?  But it does raise a good point:  what does Memorial Day mean, and what should it mean?  I'd like to see this day serve as a pause in the political rhetoric.  It should be a day when we unite as Americans to thank those who served.

I especially think we should honor the families of veterans:  many wives (and these days, many husbands, as more women serve in the military) and many kids have endured long separations from the people they loved while those men and women were serving their country.  There are some excellent, and non-partisan, organizations that work to help military families, and many of these organizations need volunteers as well as donations.  I also believe we need to do much more to support those veterans who came home suffering from mental and physical illnesses:  again, putting politics aside, this is a problem that has been worsening for a number of years and cannot be blamed on any one president.  We are especially lacking in services for women vets:  an excellent article in the Boston Globe notes the unique struggles of women who served; it also notes that a recent bill that would have increased much-needed services was killed by the Senate, a move I don't find very patriotic.     

So, on this Memorial Day, I commend the veterans who served, especially during our most difficult times. And while I may not agree with some of the wars our country has fought over the years, it is an indisputable fact that serving in the military is rarely easy and requires a special sense of duty.  Those who served should not be victimized by harsh rhetoric and political paralysis when they come home.  What they really need is not more patriotic slogans or empty promises.  Rather, they need the opportunity to find a job (I do hope more companies will hire veterans), and the opportunity to get the medical care they need in a timely manner. Many veterans are like my father-- they don't like to talk about what they need.  But we should find out, and we should try to provide it.  That, to me, is the best way to remember and celebrate our troops, whether on Memorial Day or any other day.  

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