Dispelling a Memorial Day Myth

I’m an Army brat, the proud son of a proud veteran who completed four tours of duty in two separate conflicts. I am immensely grateful that my father always returned home, at least physically. My mother was never forced to grieve at her husband’s graveside, but there is more than one way for a soldier to die. Often the man who comes home is not the same man who left for war.

I remember my mother’s stories of how his hands would encircle her throat at night as she crept into his nightmares, the sleeping wife lying next to him fused with the Chinese enemy crawling under his tent flap. I vividly recall the continual depression, the emotional detachment, the explosions of anger. Our family eroded (internally, if not externally) and gradually fell apart like a sand castle trying to withstand an oncoming tide.

There is more than one way for a soldier to die. Sometimes the family that waits behind gets back only a shell of the man they once knew. Somewhere overseas the soldier’s insides are emptied onto a battlefield, scooped out by bombs and artillery, sleepless nights and “collateral damage.” The father I once knew had been replaced by someone new, a stranger haunted by guilt and riddled with sickness.

What do my mother and siblings have to celebrate on Memorial Day?

Please, don’t urge me to remember the veterans who gave their lives so that we could be free. It’s cold comfort because it’s not true. Aside from the clearly religious overtones of those words, something my Christianity finds deeply offensive, my father’s life was not ruined while defending American freedom. Were that the case, I might be able to celebrate. But with the possible exception of World War II, what modern war has this nation fought for such noble purposes? None. My father’s life was hollowed out for a discredited domino theory that preserved American freedom by only the most strained exercise in mental gymnastics. (If Southeast Asia falls, we’re next!) In the end, half the Korean peninsula and the whole of Vietnam were lost. Yet, our freedoms were not diminished one iota.

Let’s be honest in our celebrations. My father’s comrades-in-arms died believing that they were defending American freedom. They died because this nation’s political leaders had convinced themselves that the borders of American national interests extended into Southeast Asia. But the verdict is now inescapable. American freedom was never at risk in any of those conflicts.

Soldiers gladly give their lives defending the buddies huddled beside them. Soldiers die because they obey their orders, no matter how dangerous. Many die because they are patriots. Sometimes they die in the conviction that they are defending someone else’s freedom. More die because they didn’t know what else to do after high school graduation. Soldiers die because they trust their leaders and believe the rallying cries of the commander-in-chief. But none of this necessarily has anything to do with the defense of American freedom. History demonstrates that our soldiers most often die as instruments of the ambition, naiveté, stubbornness, ignorance, arrogance, and miscalculations of our nation’s leaders.

It is far more accurate to say that Memorial Day commemorates those men and women who unwittingly gave their lives for the extension of America foreign, political, and economic interests. But that’s neither catchy nor comfortable to repeat.

In 1775 Samuel Johnson characterized patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. It is also the first refuge of the masses unwilling to face hard political realities. I’ll stand to memorialize the patriot soldiers who gave their lives protecting a buddy while carrying out dangerous commands. But don’t ask me to memorialize a lie. My family has suffered enough for patriotic delusions.

Ben Meecham is the pseudonym of a professor at a Midwestern church-related college and is used here out of respect for the writer’s father, “who is still alive and still believes.”