May 25, 2012

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Remembering what Memorial Day is all about

Cynthia DewesMay is a time for beginnings and endings. For one thing, it’s on the cusp between spring and summer when the welcome color of new foliage matures into a richer green. The temperature rises, and fruit emerges from the blossoms that came before.

It’s the end of the school year, and a time for graduations, retirements and other “endgames.” It’s also the time preceding many marriages, new jobs and new experiences in vacations.

People seem to be energized by fresh opportunities while reflecting on the gifts of the past.

May is the traditional time for remembering and honoring veterans of American wars. The observance began after the Civil War, and has continued through a series of further conflicts, culminating today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some wars have been popular, and many have not. But the men and women who risked their lives for all of us deserve public thanks.

We like to think that we are on God’s side in the country’s disputes with others. And it is pretty easy to approve of the fight for freedom and independence in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

But we tend to sweep the Mexican War and territorial fights and wars against the Native Americans under the rug. We consider them aberrations that we would like to forget.

Our southern states like to praise their role in the Civil War as a noble fight for state’s rights as opposed to an overbearing federal government. Does this sound familiar? The northern states also claim a righteous cause in their desire to end slavery.

But the Spanish-American War is a colonial embarrassment we think of as a child of its time, and World War I as something we had to participate in—if only to put an end to it.

World War II was popular because we realized that our very existence as an independent nation was at stake, not to mention the need to stop the atrocities being committed in other countries. The Korean “conflict” was a kind of addendum to it, attempting to mop up both leftover and newly created international political problems.

The Vietnam War was clearly unpopular, and contributed to a continuing political conflict in this country. The Cold War followed, but this time there was an identified enemy even though no shots were fired officially.

Today, we can kill a perceived enemy without ever laying eyes on him. We have the technology to destroy every creature and every thing in the world. With the “advance” of civilization, we have supposedly become sophisticated beyond fights over basic survival or tribal or territorial disputes. Supposedly.

Despite all the treaties and agreements and humiliating defeats and glorious victories that people experience, wars continue. At any given moment, there is a serious conflict occurring somewhere in the world. Even if our country is at “peace,” some other country or two or three are not.

Maybe we should remember exactly what we celebrate on Memorial Day. Surely, it can’t be numbers of people killed or territories claimed or even the imposition of a certain religion. No, if we want to stay on God’s side in national and international conflicts, we should be honest with ourselves about our goals.

Freedom (not license) for individuals to pursue (not be guaranteed) the fulfillment of their dreams should be our aim. That is what made the American experiment so different, so attractive in the first place. And I believe it’s something worth memorializing.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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