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Memorial Day: Remembering Our Fallen

Recently, some students signed a fake petition to no longer recognize Memorial Day because it glorified “American imperialism.”    One student said, “I’m not celebrating. I do not think Memorial Day should be a thing that we celebrate. … I think it’s a celebration of U.S. imperialism and colonialism. …  ” I didn’t really think this way until I got to college and I took women’s and gender studies classes and that put me on this path where I’m like, ‘Yeah, f**k the US.'”[1]

Unfortunately, this benighted young man’s views are not only an example of the kind of attitudes and expressions that fuel the divisiveness in contemporary America, but they are also reflective of an unhealthy psychological state that renders ineffective what potentially could be some legitimate reforms that lie buried and polluted under a pile of ideological refuse.  In the unlikely event that I could gain the young man’s attention and engage him in a reasoned conversation, I would first point out two errors in his ill-considered remarks.  The first error is historical.  The second is ideological.

The history of Memorial Day hardly supports the charge that it is “a celebration of U.S. imperialism and colonialism.”  Most historians find its origin in Decoration Day, which was a day in which fallen Union soldiers during the Civil War were remembered.  General John A Logan’s proclamation establishing the day states that its purpose was to remember the soldiers whose “lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.”  Now, I think that it is doubtful that our young student is an advocate for the Confederate lost cause against the War of Northern Aggression and against the end of race-based slavery; so perhaps he should reconsider his position.

Even if we were to look at other American wars, the claim that they were all in service to American imperialism and colonialism is highly dubious.  Woodrow Wilson, not one of my favorite presidents, would be shocked to learn that American involvement in World War I was imperialistic and in favor of colonialism.  Whatever the drawbacks of his views, the fact is that he thought that it was to free people from tyranny, making the world safe for democracy and ultimately end all wars.  Although one can admit that the tensions between Japan and America before World War II had their origins in global politics, this fact can hardly serve as an adequate explanation of America’s entrance into the war and its conduct of the war, which emphasized the priority of defeating Nazi Germany in Europe.  I will agree that the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars are more debatable.  However, characterizing even these wars solely as imperialistic and colonial is simplistic and only makes sense through the distorted lens of ideological bias.

The ideological basis for the student’s false statement is evident from his explanation of the source of his views in his college women’s and gender studies classes.  I recognize that a serious shortcoming of much traditional historical study is its neglect of the role of women in history and, as have many others, I have benefited greatly from the contribution of women’s studies to the field of history.  I also confess an openness to the possibility that men and women bring differing perspectives that are worth serious consideration not only in historical studies, but in private life and public policy.  Nevertheless, the jump from women’s studies to the condemnation of Memorial Day as imperialistic is illegitimate and undoubtedly reveals the ideological nature, probably Marxist, of his studies.

More troubling, if possible, is his concluding statement ‘Yeah, “f**k the US,” which shows that such ideological commitments create a psychological relation to one’s nation that is both unhealthy and unhelpful.  I will first explain the reason ideology creates such problems and then move on to why patriotism is both healthier psychologically and a more fruitful motive and guide for reform.

First, I am not using the word “ideology” in the popular sense of just one’s ideas.  Rather, ideology is a rationalistic theorizing that advocates societal changes without roots in a people’s culture and history.  It is a love of and commitment to abstract ideas in contrast to patriotism’s love of and commitment to a people.  The student’s ideology allows him to separate himself from his own people and say, ‘Yeah, f**k the US.’  He is pure and free from that nation’s sins because he is not a part of it.  His life is in his ideas.  The US is an entity foreign and repulsive to him.

I grew up in a healthy and loving family and am thankful for my parents and the way they shaped who I am.  As I began living away from my family, I was struck by how difficult it was for those whose family experience was not so positive.  They admitted to having to work through their relationships with their fathers or mothers or to have totally rejected them.  In either case, they were clearly suffering and not happy and, speaking frankly, sometimes had problems relating to others.

The same seems to be true regarding one’s relationship to his country.  The psychological problem for the young man is that his ‘Yeah, f**k the US’ is a form of self-hatred.  He is an American and all his ideological commitments will not change that. His ideology creates an unhealthy divide within himself, a false consciousness of who he really is, and a pathetic self-righteousness that causes him to scorn his fellow Americans who celebrate Memorial Day.  Self-hatred leads to hatred of others and divisiveness in society as real and potentially as harmful as other divisive ideologies such as racism and sexism. Hope for the positive reform of America cannot come from such a psychology.

Memorial Day for me is intensely personal because it is familial and patriotic.  I remember my great uncles Eddy and Raymond who died as a result of being gassed in World War I.  Now, understand this.  I never knew them, and I do not think my mother did either.  I remember my sister and me being taken by my mother to the Indiana War Memorial, being shown their names, and the pride I felt.  I remember the sorrow of my grandmother recounting the loss of her two brothers.  I remember with anger the story told of the burial of one of them.  A closed casket with the remains of one of my uncles, I do not remember which, had been shipped from Europe to Madison, Indiana.  A neighbor callously asked my great grandmother how she knew that it was her son.  With great dignity and compassion, she answered, “Well, it is somebody’s son.”  Maternal love led her to care for her son or even the son of another mother. Such experiences led me to react, probably too harshly, to a student’s comment that World War I was a good war since it only lasted four years.  I looked at him steely-eyed and with tightened jaw and replied, “Because of that war I lost two great uncles whom I never got to know.”

I lost my cousin Bubba in the Vietnam War.  We came to know each other when I visited my father’s family in North Carolina.  Bubba and I got along well because of our mutual love of baseball.  When I heard of his death, I was saddened but did not think much more of it.  Years later, at the end of watching the movie We Were Soldiers, I began to weep, weep for Bubba.  His death had entered deeply into my persona without my even being conscious of it.

The death of ones I knew or of those I did not know but were told to me in stories by family members became part of me.  Remembering them and loving my country were inseparable.  What my poor, ignorant ‘Yeah, f**k the US’ fellow American fails to understand is that love not hatred is the force for change.  The lover knows his beloved better than anyone, grieves over her faults, and desires above all to see those faults removed because he loves her.

Today, this Memorial Day, let us remember our fallen, thank God for their sacrifice, love our country, and seek to make her better because we love her.

[1] As reported by the Washington Examiner.



2 thoughts on “Memorial Day: Remembering Our Fallen

  1. Thank you for writing this. At a time where there are few free minds, and even fewer free thinkers, it was a healing elixir for the Soul… which is parched for beauty and for inspiring vision. We need more elders to speak up, especially since the youth are clearly passionate, albeit misguided at times. Righteousness never serves anything or anyone. I was moved to tears, especially when you shared your heart, and depth of importance of the beloveds in our life.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Dr. Saida and your understanding of the need for guiding passionate youth. I am glad that the “heart” side of the piece moved you. Somehow we need to exhibit to youth and others, frankly, the ability to combine personal passion and commitment with clear reasoning. By the way, I assume that you mean “self-righteousness never serves anything or anyone.” Once again, thank you for your comments. I’d love to hear more about you and your background.

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