Decency hijackedEvery year, I go to my town's Memorial Day parade and ceremony. It's something I've always done. When I was younger, I went because I was in the school band and we marched during the parade. Now, I go by choice. I'm a big fan of traditions (incidentally, I'm also reading Ralph Nader's excellent new book The Seventeen Traditions). And this is one of our great community traditions.
The Memorial Day parade is one of the things that just about everyone in my town participates in, either as a marcher or a watcher. The ceremony is much less well-attended, which is a bit surprising considering how gung-ho people around here have been about military service in general and the present war in Iraq in particular. Although I am against both this war and militarism in general, I still go the ceremony.
The last few years, I've started to wonder why. Since 2002, the ceremony has been hijacked by those with a conservative ideological agenda. Some of the speeches still talk about honor and sacrifice. But many more talk about fear and enemies lurking and how we need to kill them before they kill us. Many of the talking points seem taken directly from some neo-con think tank's website.
The Memorial Day ceremony should be a sacred affair that is respectful of those who were killed in military service. The one in my town has been turned into an ideological pep rally. And yet this 'supports the troops'?!
I believe Monday's ceremony in my town had three original speeches. Two were from students who won an essay contest. Since the contest is sponsored by, I believe, the local VFW, you know what kind of speech is likely to win. The first student speech was a prototype of that. It talked about freedom and liberty and how our brave troops are fighting the evil enemy who want to destroy our freedoms and how they must prevail and crush crush crush. Not much different from the kind of speech the president might give.
The second student speech was even more menacing. It essentially called on the audience to wage a Christian holy war against the Muslim infidels who want to destroy the American way of life.
The first student speech merely made me roll my eyes. The second student speech made me want to scream in outrage.
The keynote speech also played up the fearmongering aspect that we're so used to in addresses nowadays. It talked about how great America was because we weren't content with giving our own people democracy and freedom. We were great because we used our military to shove our way of life down the throats of other people, whether they want it or not.
I didn't clap at any of these speeches. The only words worth listening to were those of the clergy member invited who praised the service of not only the troops, but of diplomats, humanitarian workers and others who contribute to improving humanity.
The master of ceremonies read a poem, which many of you may have read. I will not post it here but it says that we owe freedom of the press not to journalists but to soldiers; freedom of religion not to priests, but to soldiers; etc. Basically, it says that we owe all of our freedoms to soldiers and no one else so we should get down and kiss their boots.
I have always been extremely offended by this poem, as I think it's antithetical to the American spirit. In our country, we are all responsible for defending our freedoms. It wasn't a professional army that rose up against the British, but a group of ordniary men defending what they felt was right. Protecting our rights is the responsibility of all citizens, not just those in khaki.
Giving soldiers sole responsibility and credit for our way of life allows us to abdicate our own obligations as citizens. What scares me most about the sentiments in this poem is this very simple fact: if the soldiers gave us our freedoms, they can just as easily take them away.
Soldiers help protect our freedoms. But they are not the only ones. Honor the troops, but not by slapping in the face other engaged citizens.
When this poem was read, I turned my back in protest.
But I shouldn't have to. I shouldn't have to bit my tongue during a fearmongering speech at what should be a solemn ceremony. I shouldn't have to turn my back in protest at an outrageous poem. This ceremony should be solely dedicated to honor the sacrifices of deceased servicemen, not to advance Rudy Giuliani's campaign themes. This is not merely tacky, but profane. And it disgusts me that no one else seems to be bothered by this.
Then again, given attendance at the ceremony, maybe others are making their displeasure known with their feet.
I keep going to the ceremony even as it's been increasingly hijacked by militaristic sentiments, rather than reverent ones. I feel is important to show my respect DESPITE the speakers; despite the increasing divisionism and decreasing decency. I feel like I didn't want to abdicate a perfect noble holiday to the militarists. In addition to paying my respects and to the tradition aspect, I feel my presence there is a little jab at those who would claim that patriotism and honor only belongs to the right-wing or to supporters of this particular war of choice.
Each year, I ask myself if this is worth subjecting myself to the increasing vitriol and divisionism. So far, the answer has always been yes. But each year, the answer becomes less clear.