Jeffrey here, writing from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Today, Memorial Day, Joey is silent.
Above you see an old image of the memorial arch in my native village. Among other inscriptions, it bears the names of locals who died in U.S. military service. World War 2 was the first war in which battle, not disease, caused most U.S. military deaths. That’s a big marble arch for a small town.
Why bother to remember these names? They’re just names. No one alive actually recalls most of the people named on that arch. The people themselves are or soon will be utterly forgotten, just like everyone else who ever lived or ever will live.
Remembering even the dead themselves – the actual dead, not just their names – does not help the dead. “Gone is gone,” my late Aunt Jean would say.
So let’s help the living if we can. Memories do good if they push us to act.
Abraham Lincoln understood this. In his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, Lincoln did not talk about “American exceptionalism” – he saw the Civil War as God’s punishment to North and South for establishing and perpetuating slavery. He called not for remembering the dead, but for caring for living veterans, and for veterans’ widows and orphans. At Gettysburg on November 19, 1863 – a memorial day that long predated Memorial Day – Lincoln did not thank the dead for their “service” – he focused on the living:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
On this day of barbecues and shopping and (for most Americans) but a few moments of thinking about the military dead, maybe we should resolve to show the living our thanks by ending the use of our military as a tool for politicians’ ambitions. (You think this is harsh? Look up Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, whose 16 medals included two Medals of Honor. He wrote a book entitled, War is a Racket.) Maybe instead of thanking veterans for losing their limbs or their minds for causes they did not choose, and that hurt our country, we should apologize to our living veterans, give them and their families (as a right, from our government collective, not as a gift from private charities) everything they need to heal. Let us work to make military service, to borrow a phrase from the pro-choice movement, “safe, legal, and rare.”
We saw a lot today, and talked to many people. Some highlights: