What It Do: Happy Dead Soldier Day

The first Memorial Day occurred in 1865, when black residents of Charleston, SC organized with teachers and ministers to transform a field of unmarked graves into a proper burial ground. Over 250 Union troops had died at the Charleston Race Course Prison, and the people were paying their respects by memorializing the dead and celebrating the living.

Today, Memorial Day weekend means the beginning of summer, more than anything else. Cookouts and parties. Hot sales at the local big box store. A vague sort of Independence Day foreshadow. Some people don’t know that Memorial Day is to honor the dead. Some people don’t even know it has anything to do with the military.

If we were some quaint little Monaco (total population in military service: 116) this would perhaps be less unsettling. But we live in a nation built on rivers of blood and violence. Sometimes the fights had to be fought. Other times we chose them. But through every engagement, men and women have put on the uniform of the day and given their bodies to the grinder for the sake of the person next to them.

Not every mission is worth dying for. Information falls between the cracks, people make bad calls, and sometimes greedy fucks like Dick Cheney get behind the driving wheel. But every single one of those deaths was in service of a higher ideal.

This isn’t about nationalism, or even patriotism, really. It’s not about “dying for your country” and especially not about Freedom™. It’s about showing up and doing the job you swore you would do no matter what it costs. It’s about keeping faith with your comrades even if that means taking a bullet for them.

I don’t know if I have that kind of courage, and I’ll be just fine if I never find out.

But on Memorial Day, I like to spend at least a little time meditating on the price that others have paid, and what it means to respect that. I think about what led to that cost, and I ask myself if I am worthy of it. And where I fall short—that list is longer than I’d like it to be—I try to think about how I can improve.

Then I spend time with friends and family and eat some damn chicken and drink some damn beers and celebrate life. It’s good that we gather together and spend time with each other on Memorial Day. In fact, I’d say that goes to the very heart of it. But when I see people posting about it like it’s just another excuse to buy a case of Budweiser, it throws me off.

Sure, lots of folks incorporate some type of abstract gratitude “for the troops” into their day, but I was struck by how few humble expressions of appreciation and contemplation there were for every mindless keg party announcement.

This lack of awareness speaks to the root of the cultural blindness that has allowed our military to be misused so often. If we were to stop and truly contemplate what it means for someone to sacrifice their life, we would be much less gung ho to send in the troops. We would—maybe—become more cautious about what hands we allowed to hold the reins of power.

Instead, we make it about ourselves and our good time, and think we’ve done our duty by throwing a figurative (or literal) “God bless America!” in with the drumsticks and hot dogs. We often fail to consider what it truly costs for us to have that moment. We often fail to remember the people that gave up their moments.

Again, it is a day to celebrate, just as a wake is a day to celebrate. But let us not forget the loss that inspired the celebration.

This year, I spent most of the day walking around with a friend, talking about life and what’s true, and then I went over to a buddy’s house and ate enough sausage and macaroni to choke a bull. That night, I went out with those friends and listened to music.

At the bar, there were a couple of guys on leave, bobbing their buzz cuts to the beat and drinking pints with their friends, same as us. I wondered if they had lost anyone over on the far end of the world. I wondered if we would yet lose one—or both—of them before it’s over with. I thought about a friend whose teenage son is contemplating enlistment, and what it would mean to lose him.

So many have died under our flag. They never lied in front of the United Nations, or dazzled the people with claptrap about “body counts.” They just showed up and did their fucking job. We could never demonstrate enough respect to equal their worth. All we can do is live, the best we can, and remember them from the bottom of our hearts.