HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 26, 2008
From Liberty Street

Memorial Day

John Turner


Memorial Day is said to be a time of reverence, which, I suppose is fine for many people. But for me it doesn't much signify. That's because I have got out of the reverence business.

The term is defined in my dictionary as "a feeling of profound awe and respect and often love; veneration." There are many things I do love with all my heart, including some people. But, as far as I can tell, I don't revere anything. Furthermore, I am strongly suspicious of the command to revere. It strikes me as supporting motives that are far less noble than they're thought to be.

On Memorial Day, we are called to commemorate the deaths of soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the good of their country.  But the question that has to arise in the mind of any sentient person is whether the good of the country was served by their deaths. I suppose that depends on what you think the good of the country is, and about that there is, of course, vast disagreement. But in my mind, human sacrifice is severely overrated.

As I run my mind over the various wars in which this nation has engaged, I have a hard time finding any good that was accomplished by them. The idea that freedom has been preserved because people killed one another needs far more careful scrutiny than it has received in our political discourse. Why that proposition should be simply taken for granted, without critical examination, is not evident to me. And, yet, we still find ourselves in the condition that when young men are dressed up in soldier suits and sent off somewhere in the world to kill people and be killed in return, we automatically  peep out, like cheeping birds in a nest, that they are giving their lives to preserve freedom.

Whose freedom? It's rather difficult to maintain that slaughtered people have freedom of any sort.

When young men die in war, they become objects of reverence, regardless of their character, their attributes, their values, or their skills. We drape flags over the boxes in which we stuff their bodies and by doing so we announce that their deaths have become glorious events. Thus, we encourage other young men to be not only ready but eager to have their bodies put into flag-draped coffins. The whole process takes on an aura of justification and inevitability.

But how is all this reverential business justified? The great majority of young men who died in war through the ages did so not because of any thorough understanding of, or conviction about, geopolitics but because they were members of social units led by selfish or deluded power-seekers. That these leaders were, themselves, products of their times and, therefore, not really capable of understanding what they were doing is doubtless true. So it would not be sensible for us to condemn them all as villains. But does that mean that we are required for all the rest of history to accept their values and to continue marching down the same paths they laid out? That's the lesson reverence teaches and it's not one I'm interested in adopting.

I'm so naive that I don't think it's ridiculous for humanity to try to be less foolish than it has been in the past. I realize that this is heresy to people who call themselves conservatives and think there's nothing more magnificent than the sacrifice of lives in war. But guess what? I don't give a damn. I'm tired of them and their incessant demands that I bow down before the Molochs they have decided to worship.

What I want for young people is not that they win everlasting glory by dying but rather that they experience the joys of living, that they hold their babies on their laps, and drink beer on the back porch, and go to ball games, and take pleasure when the tomatoes ripen in their gardens.  And to those who say you can't have the one without the other, I say, you are idiots and we've listened to you far too long.

It's time we start looking behind concepts like reverence, and glory, and national honor to see what's really lurking back there. When we do, we'll discover things that aren't mentioned when the bands play and flags wave. And reverence will begin to sink to nothingness which is where I think it belongs.


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