Memorial Day has always struck me as a holiday in desperate need of a root cause analysis. We honor our war dead, who deserve to be honored, but we fail to ask the deeper question, “Why are there so many of them, and why do we continue to have more?”
I have an idealist viewpoint on war – I am against it without exception. If we suggest that this war is just or that war is necessary, we capitulate to the fantasy that war can accomplish some good. War occurs when all else fails, but as long as war is an option, we excuse ourselves from the work required to achieve peace. As long as war is an option we can talk of justice but insist our point of view prevails. As long as war is an option we can talk of respect but consider our own country superior. As long as war is an option we can talk of communicating but we won’t have to take the difficult walk in another man’s shoes to understand his point of view.
We love war, even more than we love to say we are for peace. We are violent creatures, our capacity to destroy is incredible, fascinating really. We do not weigh war’s outcome realistically because we believe the virtue of our cause will tilt the outcome in our favor. Whether we are the rebel or the establishment, each side finds precedent to support his cause. War can smile on the light-footed and inspired, as it did when the Minutemen beat the Hessians in 1775 or the Vietnamese whooped us back nearly two hundred years later. Other times simple might makes right prevails. After we pummeled Dresden with thousands of bombs, and Hiroshima with just one, we brought our enemies to heel.
We also love war at a personal level. War is the ultimate adolescent activity, raging action, reckless and liberating. No one ever thinks they are going to die in a war; if they did they would not go. We always think we are invincible, the other guy will die. But sometimes the other guy kills us, and though it is tragic, we die heroes, our deaths count for something, we exit this earth at the height or our virtue, and are honored forever. We make an early exit but it is glorious.
As a child Memorial Day included a ceremony at the high school stadium with a military procession, a twenty-one gun salute, and tri-folded flags. It did not stir me. For years I did not celebrate in any way, pretending Memorial Day was nothing more than a calendar glitch for a long weekend. Then a few years ago the City of Boston began a simple, stunning Memorial Day that stirs me deeply. On a rise in the Common, volunteers plant small American flags. There are 33,000 this year, representing every Massachusetts soldier killed since the Civil War.
I am discouraged that the number of flags keeps growing. But I also find hope in the sea of dense packed red, white and blue flags. The individual colors merge, like pointillist dots of an Impressionist painting. The flags lose their unique identity, their their national symbolism evaporates and the hill becomes a graceful sea of purple.
I doubt the day will come when the people of this earth understand that our commonalties are more important than our differences, that nations and ethnicities and religions do more to separate us than to unite us, and that our best future is the one that makes a seat at the table for everyone. In the meantime I choose interpret Boston’s inspiring tribute to dead soldiers not as a collection of individuals lost to us in war’s folly, but as a beacon of what the world might look like when we lay down our arms and move forward together.
Boston Common on Memorial Day