Remembering and Keeping Memorial Day

I was thinking today about a Memorial Day breakfast I attended a couple years ago at the home of a friend who happens to live along her town’s parade route. It was a sweet gathering of friends, enjoying the marching bands and town notables as they passed by.  It felt patriotic in a low-key way, but it was not especially sad, in a memorial kind of way. I thought about that on this Memorial Day, as I made a point of watching ceremonies for the day on TV. For example, on watching the ceremony on the National Mall in Washington, DC, we were gripped by the testimony of a young widow whose story of constant and enduring loss was a shocking reminder of the personal cost of war. I felt sad, and also privately embarrassed for all of the Memorial Days gone by when I have failed to mark the seriousness of the day. As a memorial, it is about people, families and communities, after all. It is about the cost of war and all of its complexities. It is about America, and all its greatness and accomplishments, and its weaknesses and mistakes.

I have thought about the comparison between Memorial Day here in America and the parallel Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) in Israel.  On that day, the sadness pulses through the air.  The sirens that begin the evening of Yom Hazikaron sound at the same time throughout the country and everyone stops in their tracks to stand in silence in memory of those who gave their lives for the country. Memorial observances are widely attended, and the TV shows are suspended so that only memorials can be viewed. Shops and restaurants close – this is no day for fun. It is a day to honor memory and embrace one another in mutual support. The mood is appropriate for a Day of Remembrance.

It is not always so here in the suburban USA in which I live.  The stores lure shoppers with grand sales; the beaches and pools are full with the start of the summer swimming season on Memorial Day. Backyard barbeques bring friends and neighbors together in a celebration of the season. But the “memorial” part of the day is little more than a distant idea. Even Memorial Day parades do little to capture the sadness of loss and the pain of war.

The truth is we are very separated from the current day experience of war unless we have a family member or friend who was lost. Few in my community have that connection. Most Americans live their daily lives happy to ignore the fact that our country has been at war for 10 years. We face our challenges of daily life, but we do not hold in our hearts those who are currently in the Armed Service, or their families, or those who were lost, or their families. We may hear news about a battle, an attack, a downed helicopter, or an ambush. But that seems so far away, like a distant reality that belongs to someone else.

That’s a far cry from the experience of Israelis for whom that reality belongs to everyone. True, Israel is a small country where most citizens have an obligation to serve in the army, and it has faced decades of war.  The experience of loss is close and personal.  The American experience of war is at a far greater distance in many ways and for all kinds of reasons. But our collective failure to feel the effects of war is not to our credit. Our failure to be engaged by the reality of war’s devastation enables us to be distant from the responsibility for the war itself. We don’t see it as “our” war.

Unlike the days of the Vietnam War when the newspapers and TV news were filled with stories and images from the front, our news is quite sanitized. When President Bush ruled that we were not to see the returning body bags and coffins from Iraq, a new stage was set. Grief would henceforth be personal and not communal.

America has lost more than 6400 human beings in the ten years of war since 9/11. Their families grieve in a darkened world.  But we have lost more than the precious gift of their lives – we have lost the sense of shared responsibility and support that is a hallmark of a strong nation. Those who died for America deserve to be honored and grieved. Their families deserve to be supported and cared for by a compassionate nation that appreciates their sacrifice.

In respect for those who gave their lives, their limbs and their well being, let us not turn away. We owe them better.

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