For me, Memorial Day (this Monday, for the benefit of my non-American readers) is one of the more familiar and “normal” of American public holidays. A day to remember those who made the final sacrifice in the defence of our freedoms.
It’s honourable and right that we should do this.
We have something similar, but it’s on the 11th of November, and you don’t get a day off from work. We call it Remembrance Day, but it’s in essence much the same idea.
The expression is rather different, though, or at least, it appears so to me. Remembrance Day is solemn, reflective, sombre. The laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. The wearing of poppies in memory of blood shed on the poppy fields of Flanders and in a million other conflicts since. A minute’s reflective silence. The old words of remembrance:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
By comparison, Memorial Day is a party. A day off work, and the traditional beginning of the summer period. Flags and parades. Marching bands. Salutes to living veterans and our heroes in the armed forces.
It can be a little disconcerting.
Part of it is just the natural and normal difference between our countries. Americans are very good at throwing national parties. Brits tend to be pretty good at dignified public events. We are seeing what we ought to expect.
But it got me thinking about what else it might reveal, and particularly about differences in our attitudes to war and the military.
Now, I can speak for neither America as a whole nor all of Britain, but from my observation there’s a case to be made.
Even some of our historically greatest generals have made some pretty morose comments about the supposed glory of war. My particular favourite is from Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, defeater of Napoleon, and a man with whom I share a birthday: “Next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle won”. People die. Good people. It’s such a waste.
When I was growing up in Britain, we studied World War I poetry in English Literature class. Practically speaking, this is because it’s relatively easy to interpret and thus to teach. I guess it’s a good way to introduce poetry to small minds, but the net effect is that any sense of glory in military heroism is forcibly ground out of you. You are invited to mock the naiveté of Rupert Brooke, who managed to maintain a sense of love for his country, unlike the properly melancholic and cynical Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
In contrast to the cynic Owen, Americans, by and large, don’t believe that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is the lie he claimed it was. At least in Texas, the military have a far higher profile than they do in the part of Britain I grew up in, and gereral approval of military service is sky-high and publically demonstrative. I don’t think I can go a week at any time of year without someone on the radio advertising some kind of special deal for veterans and active military personnel or their families, or some other special event saluting Our Proud Military Service-Members.
If it’s a little alien, in some ways it’s more healthy than the knee-jerk rejection of any sense of honour in military service that Owen and Sassoon tried to engender via my school classroom.
As a child, I mouthed the right cynical words, because that was what all the cool intellectually astute people were doing. But my heart wasn’t in it. Deep down, I believed that Wilfred Owen was wrong.
Not that war was an intrinsically glorious business, or that any particular war was necessarily just or even justifiable, but that despite the tyrant’s plea of “necessity”, there were sometimes real necessities that meant that someone needed to put their life on the line for the sake of the country we love. That there can be virtue in military service, that a hero is a hero because they put their life at risk for the sake of others, and that neither the justifiability of the overall cause nor the competence (or lack thereof) of the commanding generals in any way disparage the honourable service of those who put their lives on the line and who make the final sacrifice.
My high school friends would probably look at me like I was a Martian. It would be ironically apt; Mars was after all the god of battle and warfare. I kept my mouth shut at school, but I’ve actually always felt more kinship with Mars than Venus, metaphorically speaking.
On the other hand, the American practice of Memorial Day seems sometimes to be a form of glorification of war for its own sake. The deep-seated “my country, right or wrong” patriotism of the enchanted. I may be reading it wrong; in fact, as a foreigner from a country who approaches the whole thing from a diametrically opposite angle, it would be difficult for me to get it right. But certainly the United States is a lot more demonstrative and public about loving their military than the United Kingdom. It’s like you’re automatically assumed to be a model of honour and moral rectitude as an active servicemember, whereas among the people I hung out with as a teen, it was almost the opposite. You were assumed to be a violence-loving thug, particularly if you were in the Army.
While America may be in need of a little disillusionment over the glory of war, in many ways I find the way they have made peace with Mars to be better than the alternative. To honour the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms we cherish is right and noble.
The ancients were right, after all. It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.