Can we mine any new wisdom from a tradition as old as Memorial Day? The more patriotic among us raise glasses to the fallen, while the more cynical decry the whole thing as a distraction from more pressing issues. Both are right, from their respective points of view–the path of our lives determines the stones of truth we can stumble across–so perhaps the cynic never loved a soldier, and perhaps the patriotic rests his identity on rose tinted glasses.
But the day is best utilized as a meditation on war; it appears to be an indelible part of being human. By some definitions, every human culture has taken part in war. But this doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically a part of us–just because we came from the primordial swamp doesn’t mean we can’t wash off the mud. Still, our relationship with war is complicated: we rationalize it’s necessity leading up to the events and it’s moral cost afterward. (Discussing morality is an indulgence of the living).
But the question remains: can we exist without war? Is it possible for humans to solve certain conflicts without murdering each other? I don’t know–only the parents of murdered children, and similarly horrific atrocities, can understand the courage of turning the other cheek.
Steven Pinker argues, in the Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence is decreasing and at its lowest point in history. Considering the current level of violence, this is more a distressing statement about where humans have come from then it is a positive statement about the present. But if he’s right, perhaps the more patriotic and hopeful among us can sincerely say that those soldiers we celebrate today really did sacrifice their lives for something, even if the rest of us dishonor their sacrifice by refusing to toss war into the flames of history with other human relic’s, such as slavery or the refusal of rights to women and minorities.
But Memorial Day itself is about remembering US troops specifically, those who have fought and died in America’s wars. Remember and praise, but keep in mind that love contains the desire to help the beloved achieve a higher state of excellence. And so, we should see through the sheen of nationalism to the unfortunate truth that not all of those soldiers fought in just wars, not all of their deaths mattered, and that many of them committed atrocities in the name of America.
Does these facts discourage us? Or are our perceived differences too titillating to stop us from the fetishization of war? Perhaps the answer can be gleamed from the present, where the irrefutable clarity of the situation resides: that war results in sending humans to the same soil from which we all came and to which we all return, expedited by creating ever grandiose ways of sending metal shrieking through the air, and motivated by an ever shifting series of concepts–all while mother’s tears remain enthralled by the same gravitational forces.