Non-Participation on Memorial Day
Today is Memorial Day but I won’t be attending a memorial service. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I would feel like a hypocrite and very uncomfortable if I attended. There are just so many things about a Memorial Day service that I can’t support.
When I think about war or watch footage from war, my heart breaks. I find it impossible to imagine what it would be like to be involved in war itself. I simply cannot imagine how horrible it would feel to kill a person whom I had never met and who had not done me or those I love any harm. I don’t even like war movies anymore. They just make me too sad. I know that they are just an act but my mind always wanders to thoughts of the real victims of real wars. I think about parents whose children went off to war and were killed or maimed. I think about children whose parents were killed in combat. I think about small children being killed. I think about my own son. I cannot imagine what it would be like to see him be killed by an errant bullet or bomb. In my view, war is the most evil scourge in history, primarily because it is the innocent who always seem to be the victims of the bulk of the violence.
At the annual Memorial Service at the local cemetery, there are hundreds of United States flags flying everywhere, from the largest flag behind the podium to the dozens or hundreds of small flags planted near graves. I cannot understand why a memorial service for the soldiers who were victimized by war would include this unspoken exaltation of the government which employed them and which sent them to war in the first place (where, by the way, they were the aggressors as well as the victims). Can a person who is morally repulsed by war rightly attend a service for the aggressor/victims of war which includes glorification of the group that perpetrates warfare? I think not.
It’s not just the glorification of the government I don’t like. The more distasteful element is the ubiquitous veneration of the US flag that goes on at Memorial Day services. Frankly, I find it offensive. Such pseudo-worship of the flag makes me so uncomfortable that I no longer participate when I am in situations in which I am expected to.
I know it isn’t really a religion of flag worship, but it is a de facto religion, as it contains virtually all the elements of a real religion and is nearly indistinguishable from such. The flag is given the place of honor at the service and many people who attend wear emblems or clothing which contain the image of the flag. There are sacred rituals (one must stand silently and put one’s hand on one’s heart as the flag is carried triumphantly to the front of the gathering; many people will become emotional during this point, being overcome by their fervor), there will be hymns to the flag (“O! Say, does that star spangled banner yet wave…?”), and there will even be a pseudo-prayer to the flag in the form of the Pledge of Allegiance. The US flag even has a miraculous nature. Of the flag, Federal law states, “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing”.
Damaging or destroying the flag is called ‘desecration’, a word having the same Latin root as ‘sacred’ and meaning to violate something holy or to deprive something of its holy nature.
Is the flag sacred? Does it have a holy nature? Is it a living thing? In my view, the answer to those questions is no. I simply cannot pretend otherwise.
Regarding the Pledge of Allegiance, I feel very uncomfortable saying it, even the first line. I know it’s not, strictly speaking, a prayer to the flag, but it couldn’t get much closer to being one.
There are many other problems as well. How can I pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth? The flag has no self, no identity, no desires, policies, or goals with which to ally myself. What does it even mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? What about the Republic for which the flag stands? I don’t really know what that means either. A republic is just another vaporous enigma which has no self, identity, desires, policies, or goals. It has no nature to which I can have a relationship of any kind. It’s simply an abstract idea. Pledging allegiance to such a thing is absurd. One might as well pledge allegiance to the law of gravity or to an invisible pink unicorn.
I know that to many people, the pledge is an affirmation of commitment to the ideals supposedly embodied by the United States, such as Liberty, etc. At one time I understood the Pledge of Allegiance in that way. The problem with that interpretation is that it is false. The pledge is very clear: any person repeating it is actually pledging their allegiance to the US flag and to the US republic, not to some ideal.
Moving further in the pledge, how could I possibly say that the Republic provides Liberty and Justice for all? Surely the more than 2 million people in prison across the country (the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on earth, both in terms of absolute numbers and on a per-capita basis) and the 7 million people under “correctional supervision” (most of those, by the way, for crimes that had no victim) do not have Liberty. Do they have Justice? Restrictions to Liberty don’t stop there. Are we free to keep what we earn? Are we free to withhold support for immoral government policies? Even the most casual observer understands that, year after year, there is less Liberty for fewer people in the United States.
What about Justice? Not only do the victims of crime receive absolutely no justice in the form of any kind of restoration, but they are also forced, at gunpoint if necessary, to pay for the incarceration of their aggressors through taxation. Imagine that, for a minute. Imagine someone you love is raped or murdered and you are forced to pay for a portion of the trial and incarceration which may last for the rest of your life. That is an absolute mockery of justice and makes me physically ill just thinking about it. Claiming that the US republic provides Liberty and Justice for all is a vile farce and is the worst kind of doublespeak.
Finally, the Pledge of Allegiance is an unconditional commitment. I cannot, in good faith, make such a commitment because it may conflict with my unconditional commitment to live a virtuous life. The Republic (or its representatives) may ask me to do things which conflict with that commitment and I am bound by my desire for virtue to refuse. Any person who makes such an unconditional pledge of allegiance can only do so at the expense of other unconditional commitments.
One may at this point object that even if I don’t like the flag portion of the service, I should at least attend to honor the fallen soldiers who gave their life giving me (or at least protecting) my freedom. Forgive me, but I just don’t see that happening. How is it that soldiers stationed at the more than 700 military bases in 135 countries around the world are protecting my freedom? How is the drone war in Pakistan protecting my freedom? How are the many military conflicts around the world in which US soldiers are involved protecting my freedom? If the Federal Government is a threat to freedom, how can those it employs be protecting freedom?The theory that soldiers died for my freedom simply does not match reality and so must be discarded.
Freedom is the natural state of human beings from birth. It cannot be given, as it exists in each human being from the start. It can only be removed by force. When I look around, I realize I am less free now than I was a year ago, when I was less free than I was two years ago, and so on. Any keen observer will note that freedom is diminishing in a very dramatic way. And who is it that is doing the taking? Not terrorists. Not the British redcoats, or Iraqis, or Al Qaeda, any other group. It’s mostly the people calling themselves the government; the very people who employ the soldiers to begin with. Either the soldiers are not protecting my freedom or they are doing a very poor job at it. I am inclined to believe the former. In reality, I see the State itself as the biggest threat to my life and liberty. Some 262 million civilians were killed by democide (the killing of citizens by their governments) in the last century. Combined with 40 million combat deaths the State is responsible for more than 300 million deaths in the last century alone.
It seems bizarre and hypocritical to me to memorialize the dead at a service which also glorifies the very organization which sent them to their deaths in the first place. It is a complete tragedy that so many young men and women were killed in combat, and that they themselves killed so many others, including women and children. Why not remove the agency who ordered the destruction in the first place from the memorial service? I would feel so uncomfortable and hypocritical memorializing the deaths of soldiers while at the same time engaging in pseudo-worship of the flag and glorification of the government that sent them to their deaths and I will not participate in that.
Finally, it strikes me that Memorial Day services have the effect of strengthening the resolve among participants to support the wars waged in their names, the very wars which I oppose. This is odd. One would think that being exposed to the reality of death as a consequence of war would serve to lessen the desire of those exposed to participate. In my view, Memorial Day services heap glory, heroism, and other such virtues on combat and death, honor and exalt those who participate in war, and create sacred monuments out of the dead and maimed.
All of this helps to form a tolerance for, a taste for, or a love of war among the people who attend. Look inside yourself. When you attend a Memorial Day service, what feelings do you leave with? How does the service affect your attitude toward warfare and those who perpetrate it? Are you, like me, repulsed by the great evil of war, or are you left feeling that it behooves those who have the good fortune of not having their lives destroyed by war to support and legitimize war itself?
It is as James Garner’s character in The Americanization of Emily said,
I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parade. We shall never end wars by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.
My brother died at Anzio – an everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud. Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. It may be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave.
Those who speak at Memorial Day services will claim that there is honor, goodness, and beauty to be found in war. This is a lie. There is nothing but misery, slavery, and death. Do not be misled: the honor, goodness, and beauty which some claim to find in war are merely the tattered and empty remains of the humanity of the victims of war, which humanity is made more appealing by its contrast to the filthy and caustic muck of war.
One day war will come to an end. The sooner that day comes, the better. Please don’t make heroes of the dead by attending Today’s services. Please don’t exalt the sacrifices of war. Please don’t honor the institution of war. Please join me and others like me in non-participation on Memorial Day.