Come then, pure hands, and bear the head
That sleeps or wears the mask of sleep,
And come, whatever loves to weep,
And hear the ritual of the dead.
It's Memorial Day today here in the United States. A day that really should be spent in reflection and sorrow, and not in partying to celebrate summer's beginning but that's the way it has become for some. Not all though – there will be visits to cemetaries and remembrance services for many.
For me, it's a strange day due to my own particular history. Firstly, thanks to my British upbringing, I always associate Armistice Day (November 11) with the dead of war. Indeed it was that war – World War One – that killed members of my own family. I first came across Memorial Day as it used to be called, Decoration Day – a far more upbeat name. I heard this name as one of a collection of orchestral pieces by Charles Ives. Again, music that is more celebratory than lamenting. So there's an emotional tug pulling this particular day away from deep gravitas.
So's there a duality in my mind as well as in practice. This is only reinforced by the extraordinary duality between domestic America and America at war. Unless you happen to be in the military, have a relative in the military or be deeply concerned with the war in Iraq, either for or against, you can essentially tune out the entire war.
To be sure, there are news reports on the fatalities and the car bombs and squabble between the Adminstration and Congress, but there is no sense at all – those exceptions I mentioned above excluded – that the war has any direct impact on the average person. For the first few months, when the news was good, the battles were won, and none of the quagmire to come was made clear except to the few (including, it seems, the intelligence community) who really understood the grimmer prospects to come, there was an upbeat air of success that effectively squelched any criticism.
But once the big battles (not that there were many of those) were won, the statues toppled and the grand photo ops finished, most people assumed the worst was over and in a year or so we'd have a nice, stable and friendly Iraq.
Today, as we know, all of those upbeat assumptions were false, and the removal of dictator who was at that point far more bluster than real threat had simply removed the brakes on a society riven with internal conflict and itching to tear itself apart. And of course, each group of extremists from whatever faction could always point a finger at the U.S. as the big bad ogre and continue slaughtering their neighbors and American soldiers, content in their justifications for murder.
War is never good, but if you are going to fight one, fight a real one against a nation that attacks you and bring everyone into the fight on the home and foreign fronts. Issue War Bonds – at least attempt to pay for the thing directly instead of borrowing, as the U.S. is doing, Chinese and other overseas monies and squandering its financial future in the process. Instill a sense of shared sacrifice – not this unreal and hideously unfair split where just a small segment of American society is giving its lives and accumulating terrible disabilities in a war that has no real purpose or goal anymore.
It's hard to look back on World War One – the war that claimed some of my great-uncles – as a 'good' war, given the death toll and the dislocation of Europe into a precursor of an even greater slaughter. But at least everyone shared the sorrow and sacrifice directly, even the U.S. with its much shorter exposure to the killing machine lost 116,708 military dead (the United Kingdom lost 885,138 military and 109,000 civilians). You might argue – erronously in my opinion – that the very low iraq casuality numbers in comparison somehow classify this as a different sort of war, one that can indeed be parceled off to a small segment of society and ignored by the rest. That's just bull – one death, one hand blown off – is too many, and everyone should be involved.
Involved to stop it as soon as possible.