I know Memorial Day was on Monday, but I was driving home from the end of Fanime that day. And I’d like to take a moment to talk about Memorial Day anyway. It’s a bittersweet holiday, and I like my bittersweet things.
I am a liberal. I support public health care. I am one of the, what, two or three people left in America who admits to voting for Barack Obama in 2008. That’s how liberal I am.
All the same, I took a moment of silence at a gas station outside Salinas, watching the sun set over the mountains and the shadows creep along the valley and all that farmland. It’s never been enough for me to blindly recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I try to think about what I’m saying and why I mean it. I try to actually feel it, and to imbue these rituals of American Civil Religion with real meaning.
I don’t feel comfortable blindly praising “our troops” for “saving our freedoms.” It doesn’t mean anything to say that.
But I took my moment of silence. And to every man who dared and died in the American Revolution, I gave my profoundest thanks. With their blood, they bought me the first nation in the world governed by Enlightenment liberal philosophy. Their blood bought me the First, Fourth, and Ninth amendments of the Bill of Rights. They bought the rest of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution besides, but those are the ones dearest to my heart: the rights to speech, to conscience, to privacy, to silence, and all the rest.
To the men of the Union Army, in well-fought battles or ill, I give my thanks, for defending those liberties with their lives from unscrupulous slaveholders hiding behind the Tenth Amendment and their ‘states’ rights.’ Their blood bought us the Fourteenth Amendment. Those of you who’ve read the Gettysburg address know that Lincoln felt the same way: He could not hallow the graves at Gettysburg, the men already had.
To the American servicemen who fought in World War II, I give my profoundest thanks. The European theater was not to secure American liberty, but the liberty of our sister republic in France, our ally England, the Jewish people of Europe, and all countries that the Nazi regime did cast a shadow over. The Pacific theater was retaliation against an unprovoked attacked, fought to insure that the Empire of Japan would have neither the desire nor the ability to try again. You all gave your lives in defense of America, in defense of the West Coast in particular. I see a sparkling sea out there, and signs of prosperity all around. Thank you.
To the secret men and their secret deeds who died in the Cold War: Your deaths were not in vain. The Soviet Union long ago fell, and the world did not fall with it. We live and breathe, thanks to some of you and despite some others of you, but none of you died in vain.
To the servicemen, and women, now in Afghanistan, you like you grandfathers in the Pacific War fight to retaliate against an unprovoked attack on your homeland. You have overthrown the Taliban and now fight to keep them from gaining the power to attack America again. I thank you, every one of you, who has laid down his life for these ends.
But what about the rest?
What about the men who died in the pointless wars, the petty wars, the unjust wars? The ones who died on Kettle Hill in Cuba, or in the Bay of Pigs? The ones who wore the grey, and not the blue, at Gettysburg? The ones who died in the trenches and at the hands of the first storm-troopers across Belgium and Germany? The ones who died in the stinking jungles of Vietnam, at Khe Sanh and the rest? The ones who die by the roadside in Iraq? The ones who died in undisclosed actions, across the world, from 1776 to 2010?
As a student of history, I cannot credibly thank a Confederate infantryman for “securing our freedoms.” Nor can I credit any American in the Spanish-American war. And some of our wars make me sick, like the Mexican-American war or the Quasi-War with France under John Adams. And there are some wars where men died on the battlefield for freedoms being quickly eroded at home.
They were soldiers, not generals or politicians. And some of our soldiers have been bad, and some have been petty, and some have been noble. They, all of them, died, in good wars and evil.
So I said this: “And you, all of you, who died in those wars…you died no less nobly, your blood no less mourned for its loss. For dying, and, whatever sort of man or woman you were, giving that last sacrifice for your country and your beliefs…I thank you. I thank you, I thank you, I thank you, and I wish only that your lives could have been better spent.”
The Confederate soldier lying under a field in Georgia was no less a man, and no less an American, than his Union brother. Neither is the poor kid from New York who died on Kettle Hill, or the boy from Alabama who bought in Baghdad, or the draftee still left in some forgotten swamp in central Vietnam. I can’t say they were defending my freedoms, but they sure as hell thought they were, and they died for it.
Their graves are, and should be, as hallowed as the graves in Arlington and Gettysburg.
Here’s to the fallen soldiers, in good wars or evil, and all they fought for: Thank you.