What Memorial Day Is to a Pacifist Like Me

by Belinda Munoz on May 31, 2010

memorial day

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S. today.  It’s a special day on which the nation honors the dedicated service of soldiers who died on duty.  Millions of Americans anticipate this holiday with eagerness as part of the bargain of being gainfully employed in the land of the free.

CENTURIES AGO BEFORE MEMORIAL DAY CAME TO BE

As much as I’d like to, I can’t escape the sobering significance of Memorial Day.  Five days out of the week, I make my way down a winding path to the building where my office sits in the Presidio — formerly an army base whose beginnings date back to the same year as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Three armies — Spanish, Mexican and American — at different times, controlled this now federal park.

DECADES AGO

There are holidays that I like much, much more.  Two and a half decades ago, I would have wished this day never came.  One day before Memorial Day, I watched someone very close to me pass away.  Unexpectedly.  Every year since then, I’ve come to associate Memorial Day with his death even though he never fought in a war.

TODAY

Less than a mile from where my office sits is the San Francisco National Cemetery where rows upon rows of white-gray gravestones line the slope of a hill.  These markers, standing equidistant from each other as though on a march, memorialize the heroism of those soldiers who committed loyal service and willingly gave up their lives for their country.

To a tourist driving by, the neatness of these gravestones on this serene-looking piece of land almost, but not quite, successfully scrubs the brutality of the wars these soldiers fought — wars that claimed these soldiers’ lives.  Ironic is almost a fitting word.  But not quite.

ANSWERS VARY

In this country, the day on which this nation commemorates courageousness is the same day that many stores traditionally offer deep “Memorial Day sale” discounts on their peddled goods.  And many will participate by claiming their bagfuls of purchased goods.  How did this become tradition?  Are those running these establishments oblivious to the true meaning of this day?  Are these shoppers reaping one of the benefits of war?

I wonder these things because when it comes to war, all I have are questions.  Questions about how frequently war necessitates even though it’s designed to be the last resort.  Questions about what the history books will get right and will get wrong.  Questions about what will be remembered centuries from now.

I wonder how old those soldiers were when they were killed.  I wonder what they were told about the cause for which they fought.  I wonder if they were proud, if their families were proud, when they joined the service.

I wonder how many more soldiers like them will lose their lives by next year’s Memorial Day.

I wonder how much we will learn from the lessons of their bravery, of their deaths, in our lifetime.

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Image by Elessar

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 nothingprofound May 31, 2010 at 5:45 am

Yes, what a waste! When will they ever learn?

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2 Colleen June 3, 2010 at 5:53 pm

It is all very well and good sitting back in your cosy armchair in your free county with you libery in tact talking about THEY isn’t it.
THEY do this on behalf of what THEY believe is best for you.
THEY are not always right.
THEY are not always wrong.
THEY are human too.
THEY have to live with their decisions.
It would be lovely if we could all live as one with no wars, no hunger and no sadness but while we still separate THEM from us on any level it will never stop.

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3 Rudri May 31, 2010 at 8:28 am

Belinda,

I have wondered some of these same things. I don’t understand why every holiday is now synonymous with sales at the department stores. I am an advocate of non-violence, but I don’t think I will ever see that in my lifetime. It is sad state of affairs.

Thanks for your insight.

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4 rob white May 31, 2010 at 9:23 am

Hi Belinda,
I think this is a fitting tribute for memorial day. We must give ourselves sincerely to deep reflection, and not be tossed about by the opinions the World Voice offers us. It is wise to trust no information that does not feel right. When we declare independence from the World Voice, our mind looks calmly with an eye for separating fact from fiction.

Great conversation

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5 Katie May 31, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Belinda, very thoughtful post. Both personal and political, which is what war is. I hope we learn, but history says we don’t. I still hope.

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6 Keith Davis June 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Hi Belinda
Reminded me of the “Dunkirk evacuation” anniversary, which has just passed.
Heard one or two of the veterans who were evacuated telling their stories.
All these men were real heroes but they taked in a very matter of fact sort of way.
Made me feel very humble.
As Katie said – thanks for a very thoughtful post.

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7 Eva @ EvaEvolving June 2, 2010 at 8:25 am

I really appreciate this post, Belinda, for reminding us of the real reason for Memorial Day – and asking some challenging questions. It’s unfortunate that Memorial Day has become a three-day weekend for fun without remembrance.

After just watching the HBO miniseries “The Pacific” I’m even more shocked and amazed at war, at the bravery of soldiers, at the sheer role of fate or chance in who lives and who dies. It’s heartbreaking.

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8 Nicki June 3, 2010 at 9:38 am

We – my youngest and I – always spend the beginning of Memorial Day at a parade. He marches while I watch. Then, as the Boy Scouts stand at attention, the American Legion members conduct a memorial service at the cemetery where the parade ends. It is moving beyond words.

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9 Colleen June 3, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I agree very strongly with this post. It is sad that it has become a shopping day for a lot of people. One of the unfortunate side effects of the freedon to choose I suppose.
In Australia we have ANZAC day and for the last couple of years I have stood beside the beach at dawn with the waves rolling in in the background as the dawn service takes place. It is very eerie thinking this must what it sounded like on the beaches of Gallipoli before the sound of gunshot and bombs exploded throught the peace leaving sheer carnage in its wake.
Spare a thought also for the soldiers now who sit in front of a computer out of harms way dropping bombs on people in countries far away then go home for dinner and to play with their kids trying to pretend it was just another day at work. These soldiers sometimes suffer from terrible psychological damage that has a very lasting effect on their lives. No parades for them. No glory.
I for one wish it would end.

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10 Tony Single June 4, 2010 at 5:44 am

There is a deep irony at work here when peace can only be gained through great violence. I loathe war. Even one life lost is one too many. The hopes and dreams… and, yes, fears that we all share no matter where we come from or what we believe we’re fighting for means that fundamentally we’re all the same.

So why fight? Why not all take advantage of Memorial Day bargains together and be thankful that if we really really REALLY want it, then maybe we don’t have to make war any more. Of course, I do know that it’s a lot more complicated than that, but I can dream, can’t I?

Beautifully written, Belinda. I share your questions and sentiments on this.

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