Tuesday, June 01, 2010

On the nature of service to others

NCPR's Brian Mann wrote an interesting essay on Why Memorial Day Matters.

I could go on about how activities like Memorial Day are exploited to chill dissent and stifle real debate on when soldiers should be forced to risk their lives. But that's for another time. Memorial Day is a holiday that has become important to me. I am not entirely sure why but I think it's related to the notion of service to something greater than oneself. I also think it's related to my horror at the actual effects of war.

Yet, I think one of paradoxical effects of the us constantly honoring our soldiers is that it (inadvertently, I hope but am not sure) leaves the impression that the only way you can render service to your country is to join an institution whose primary means of problem-solving is violence.

The use of force for true self-defense is legitimate. And I believe it is right to honor the sacrifices ordinary soldiers made, since the controversial stuff is nearly always done by the politicians.

One thing for which I am grateful to my father (an Air Force veteran) is the way in which he stressed to me the importance of service to others. He did not view service as something strictly limited to joining the military, something he never once encouraged or discouraged me from doing. He once expressed envy at my choice to serve in West Africa in the Peace Corps. He had a very broad view of service and I am thankful he shared that.

As such, I wished we lived in a society that place more value on serving your country and community in ways that build and help other Americans. We honor soldiers constantly. But do we honor teachers? Do we honor firefighters, who also risk their lives? Do we honor the truly heroic work of humanitarian aid workers? Do we honor volunteers who read to the sick or feed the homeless or visit the elderly, tasks perhaps more modest but an integral part of our greater humanity? Why don't we do more to honor that service which gives aid and comfort to human beings in our communities? Is it possible to wish we valued other forms of service without devaluing the very real service of soldiers? Is service to humanity really any less important than service to America? If not, why do we treat it as such?

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