It’s not so bad if you’re a fan of quietly contemplating old graves or memorials. A solemn and silent thank-you to some long-dead Civil War or World War Either-One vet is a comforting historical touchstone for people who never lived through those times. There the soldiers were; here we are. Ne’er the twain shall meet. Whatever ambiguities there were at the time have largely been smoothed out in popular memory, until most of us can at least say “I’m glad you did your part, whatever it was” to those old dead.
Dealing with this generation’s troops is harder.
Our country has been at war quite literally since I was in high school (ten and a half years for those that don’t have my graduation announcement handy). Wrap your brain around that one for a moment before we go on with this essay — everything you’ve done for the last decade was done, technically, in a state of war. Didn’t notice much here at home, did you?
This real and ongoing conflict (“living” seems like the wrong term, under the circumstances) makes it a touchy dance down a fine line to memorialize the dead of a decade ago while some of the people they shipped out with are still fighting today. Which do you honor, the history or the present? Memorial Day was meant for the historical perspective, but we cannot, dare not, trivialize the living.
One solution I do not like at all is the rah-rah, flag-waving , 4th of July lite Memorial Day. Yelling “Thank you for your service!” at anyone in uniform overlooks the massive, criminal waste we’ve made of their service. Buying a trooper a beer does not make that waste better.
But “Thank you for your good intentions; I wish we had created a structure wherein your obvious patriotism could have been put to meaningful domestic use instead of wasted abroad” is an awkward sentiment to try and unpack in a crowded bar.
I’ve always wondered how different our recent history might be if we’d created a civil service to match the military. Imagine sending our movie-poster-handsome recruiters out to the high schools to solemnly tell the boys and girls that it’s their time to do their best for Uncle Sam and apple pie by joining the WPA or the CCC. But we phased those out, and left the military as the only government employer that recruits straight out of the cradle.
So here we all are with a Memorial Day where the waste of the living’s ongoing efforts is every bit as heartwrenching as the memory of the fallen. Imagine the good they could have done (both groups) here at home.
It’s sad. So you get a sad post now that I’ve had a few days to toss these thoughts around in my head. Aren’t you all glad?