I thought I understood the meaning of Memorial Day. I thought the military uniform hanging in my closet taught me the meaning of Memorial Day. I thought that growing up the child of a soldier, and the grandchild of a sailor taught me the meaning of Memorial Day. But I was wrong.
I sensed the meaning of Memorial Day. A few years ago I preached a sermon about standing at the Vietnam Wall with my father, watching him trace names of friends across the wall. It was the only time I ever saw tears in his eyes. I saw my grandfather visit the Punchbowl WWII memorial in Hawaii, and I saw those same silent tears.
I thought I knew the meaning of Memorial Day… but I did not. Not until my wife came and told me that the television news had just reported the death of my friend, military partner, and former roommate in the Al Anbar province of Iraq on December 6th, 2006. It was not until I realized that I too would one day have a name to trace across a memorial somewhere, the name of Travis Patriquin, that I learned the meaning of Memorial Day.
While I do not believe in a spiritual place called hell, I think General William Tecumseh Sherman was right when he said that “War is Hell”. It is a hell that exists in this time, in this world, not in some metaphysical afterlife. I wish with all my heart we could rid ourselves of it… I wish for the day to come when we no longer send our young men and women off to walk through that hell. I wish for the day when our problems are solved by meeting, not by killing. It is rarely those who should be meeting that instead face the killing. I wish with all my heart for what military forces we have to become a tool of peace, not a weapon of war.
Clinton Lee Scott once said “Always it is easier to pay homage to our prophets than to heed the direction of their vision”. The true meaning of Memorial Day is not homage… it is not to honor those who have served, those who have died for our nation. Oh, that is what the media will tell us, what the President will say when he lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery in a few days. I expect him to strike a tone of “honor our dead, and standing resolute.” No, it is not honor that our war dead ask of us. Honor is the easy way out of the vision they call us to.
The true meaning of Memorial Day is to remember. It is to remember that the cost of war is almost always too high. The true meaning of Memorial Day is not to honor our dead, but to remember the price they paid. To remember the price their families pay. To remember the physical and psychic wounds that the survivors of war, on all sides, carry with them till the end of their days. To remember the lives never lived. To remember the horrors unleashed upon civilian populations by the tools of modern warfare. To remember…
I want to cease thinking of Memorial Day as if it were a holiday, for it is not. I want to end the Memorial Day sales and the picnics, the trips to the lake and the hamburgers and hotdogs with stars and stripes napkins. We should never “celebrate” Memorial Day. I want Memorial Day not to be a holiday, but rather a National Day of Mourning.
It began as “Decoration Day”, a day when families and friends would go to cemeteries and place flowers and flags upon the graves of those who had died in the Civil War. From those graves they heard, and they remembered the cost of war. I want to return to that spirit, so that the memory of the true costs of war is fresh in our minds, renewed annually… so that perhaps we can honor our dead by sending no more to join them.
Keep your Memorial Day plans, if you have them, but remember the “reason for the season”. We do not honor the casualties of war with flowers and speeches, but by truly and deeply remembering the cost of war when we contemplate sending our service members of today into harm’s way. We honor them by remembering that war is a hell that should rarely, if ever, be unleashed.
Yours in faith,
Rev. David Pyle
Chaplain, U.S. Army Reserve