Anticipating Memorial Day 2008

This year another 4,000+ US soldiers have died and will be remembered on Memorial Day - or not. Americans, you see, rarely bring honor and solemnity to this holiday any more: we drink beer, crank up the grill, mark the start of summer and visit family. All of which is good - maybe even blessed - but it has nothing to do with Memorial Day. Politicians, of course, will try to lay claim to this day but they usually come off as the pandering buffoons they are and we are the worse off for their words. I think the poet, Longfellow, rather got it right when we wrote:

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest on this Field of the Grounded Arms, where foes no more molest, nor sentry's shot alarms!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet at the cannon's sudden roar,
Or the drum's redoubling beat.
But in this camp of Death no sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath, no wound that bleeds and aches.
All is repose and peace, untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease, it is the Truce of God!
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be as sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green we deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been, The memory shall be ours.

But we no longer remember for we cherish social amnesia. The way I understand it, this national holiday began during the American Civil War when the grieving women of the South went to decorate the graves of their fallen dead. After the war, freed Black slaves honored the graves of Union soldiers until 1868 when General John Logan encouraged folk to decorate the graves of ALL soldiers - from the North and the South - as a sign of honor and remembrance. After WWI the holiday of Decoration Day had taken root and whole communities gathered in quiet dignity to bring flowers and flags, prayers and poems to local graveyards where their military dead had been laid to rest.

Today all that is lost. As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang after the deaths at Kent State, we no longer know what it means to "find the cost of freedom." We have been forbidden to see the bodies returning home. We have been distracted from the agony of Iraqi deaths and injuries and have been lied to by leaders with no shame and even less understanding of the morass they have created. Sadly, most Americans are more upset by $4 a gallon gasoline than their 4,000 dead.

So it will be left to the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and lovers of the most recent military dead to count the cost - and remember. They will recall that their loved ones died in a war that most of us knew was not needed. They died serving God and country - mostly with dignity - and often with great courage. And they died understanding that they were part of an ugly disaster with no clear short-term objectives and absolutely no hope of long term success. They will remember because most of us are too busy, too ashamed or too distracted to consider the cost of freedom.

It makes me think of the guys (mostly men) from my last church in Tucson who had been former military officers in Vietnam (and a few of the infantry grunts, too.) They wept on Memorial Day. The spoke to me of losing loved ones and strangers in combat. They told me how much they hated war and would do anything in the power to keep it from happening again. And they made it clear that freedom and hope are never abstractions for them, but always realities filled with the real blood of people they knew and lost. And then there were the Desert Storm vets - and a few who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan - who told me similar stories and wept similar tears. These women and men have blessed me - and all of us - and I give thanks to God our paths once crossed for they have helped me reclaim Memorial Days as a time of sober remembrance.

The poet, Rudi Raab, once wrote:

We are the children of the holocaust.
We are both germans and jews
We are the children of the victims
We are the children of the oppressors
We started out on opposite sides
But the memory of the holocaust will join us forever
We shall never let the victims be forgotten
For if we do, we will forget that the perpetrator
Can be in all of us.

Take a listen to David Gilmore (of Pink Floyd fame) and David Crosby and Graham Nash singing their old prayer, "Find the Cost of Freedom." It will help you remember and makes it all real...


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