I understand that because we are in the midst of active war on two grisly fronts, it is appropriate on Memorial Day 2009 to acknowledge living veterans – particularly those severely wounded and those (largely) intact who have served in our current wars. That said, one of my longstanding civic pet peeves is that so many flag-waving Americans don’t know the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, so let me make that distinction clear for anyone who may be confused.
Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, was first commemorated in 1868 to honor the military dead of the Civil War and continues to be the holiday that honors all war dead, held on the last Monday of May each year. Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day because it commemorated the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, is the day we honor military veterans (war survivors) of all wars in which Americans participated, and it is held on November 11th each year, no matter what day of the week it falls on. For decades, both holidays have been primarily viewed by the oh-so-patriotic populace as occasions to go shopping, and, in the case of Memorial Day, participate in cook-outs and start wearing white for the summer.
My grandfather was a wounded veteran of World War I and received several medals. My father was a Merchant Marine veteran of World War II, during which he survived two major fires on two different oil tankers. My uncle is a WWII Navy veteran who served in the Pacific. And over the years, I’ve had friends who served in the Army, Navy and Marines, including a lesbian who was drummed out of the Navy during a gay witch-hunt in the 50s. I may be a 60s peacenik, but I have never disrespected war veterans, and, I’m proud to say, was never among those who greeted returning Vietnam War veterans with shouts of “baby killers!”
Throughout history, some wars have been morally necessary, others were totally contrived for cynical, often purely economic reasons. But all of them wounded and/or killed persons who (very often) voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way, because they believed they were doing something essential in defense of their country and the values for which it stands. This is true of the military personnel of all countries, whether they’re our allies or our enemies. And for a while, there were Rules of War, a perhaps oxymoronic concept that said “this form of brutality is allowed, but this other form is not.” Among those rules at various times were Don’t Kill Civilians, Don’t Attack Hospitals and Schools, and Don’t Torture Prisoners of War. I think it can be fairly said that the gloves have been off on all those fronts for some years now, and America is hardly alone in this regard.
But to return to the purpose of Memorial Day: one of the great ironies of modern warfare is that battlefield medicine has been so enormously improved, many of those who would have died of horrendous injuries in wars gone by are now patched up sufficiently to make it home, only to endure countless surgeries, tortuous physical rehab, and existence of either lifeless vegetation or grossly limiting disability. Is this progress or torment? I imagine that those with severe, lifelong injuries have different opinions; unfortunately for them, many of them can't tell anyone what their true wishes are.
It’s worth noting here that (as of April 2009, per About.com) 4,278 military personnel have so far died in Iraq and Afghanistan; and 31,215 have been wounded, most of them severely and 20% with completely life-altering brain or spinal injuries. Salon.com reports that 30% of returning troops develop serious mental/emotional problems within 3 to 4 months of their return, and 140 veterans of the Army alone have committed suicide – a trend that is increasing by all accounts. It is also worth noting that through mid-2009, $800 billion has been spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and President Obama recently requested another $76 billion. It costs over $300,000 per year to deploy one soldier. All facts worth remembering this Memorial Day.
One of the few musical moments in tonight’s concert that didn’t prompt me to roll my eyes with nausea or despair came from country music singer Trace Adkins. He sang a beautiful, plaintive song called “`Til the Last Shot’s Fired,” the chorus of which says: Say a prayer for peace/For every fallen son/Set my spirit free/Let me lay down my gun/Sweet Mother Mary, I’m so tired/But I can’t come home/`Til the last shot’s fired. Let’s honor the war dead – and the war survivors – by finding a way to fire the last shot; to finding new and better ways besides war to stop tyranny and other ills in their insidious tracks.