A Memorial Day Observance: The Destruction That Is War


A collaborative effort of the DSA Veterans Working Group

Memorial Day began as a consecration of war dead following our Civil War by recently freed people honoring their comrades who fought and died with the Union Army for their freedom. Its purpose was one of mourning, not celebration; it is only in this generation that it has become — in the mass culture of the United States of America, at least — a festival for commerce and pageantry, far removed from any context or awareness of battlefield casualties. Out of respect for those who died and for those whose lives were forever changed by war, we must not allow this to happen. We don’t need bumper stickers or parades; we need solidarity.

It is not the first time that capitalist society has hijacked the intended meaning of a holiday; we see the same kind of ahistorical interpretation of Mother’s Day, which was itself a product of 19th century anti-war movements. As veterans of America’s adventurism abroad, we reject the notion that Memorial Day should avoid the uncomfortable question of this nation’s longest-running conflict.

Since 2001, the United States has waged ceaseless, objectiveless warfare in the Middle East, Central Asia, North and East Africa, and the islands of Southeast Asia. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for nearly seventeen years. A generation has been born into this unending conflict, and we will soon have service members who have never known a time when this country was not at war. As of today, we have lost 6,915 service members directly in battle or in support of hostilities abroad, the overwhelming majority of whom were working class. We have lost many more to suicide and the after-effects of military service, at an average rate of 20 veteran suicides each day. We have contributed to the deaths of over a million people worldwide by bombing their homes, destroying their livelihoods, and instigating a near-apocalyptic refugee crisis in the Middle East. We have spent more than $5 trillion at the expense of all else while we’ve allowed our nation’s infrastructure and schools to rot away. With no real tangible objective, the endless campaign to support American Exceptionalism abroad resembles a truck marooned in sand, spinning its wheels and churning, getting nowhere while digging itself into an even deeper hole. There is no turning point on the horizon; continued engagement by armed forces will not improve the situation. It will cause only more death and waste: all of it unaccountable, most of it invisible to all but its victims. And there are always victims; entire communities overseas live in our shadow, wondering if the next plane overhead will be the last.

Memorial Day is billed as a moment to pause and reflect upon those who gave their lives, and yet we spend the day either exalting uniforms or pretending their wearers do not exist. We cannot — we must not — allow pageantry and uncritical and unexamined support of foreign policy to remove the context in which so many young service members have died since 2001: serving alongside comrades in a war without purpose, without end. Nor can we, by virtue of being in a privileged position to ignore the impact of war waged on other countries, pretend that we have not killed untold numbers across the world — often unjustly, and always violently. Many more will die of their wounds, be they physical or mental. Our pine boxes roll onto the tarmac off-camera and our veterans return home to dwindling prospects and quiet resignation to their class. This is unacceptable.

What has $5 trillion bought us? What goal is worth the cost of so many lives? How many innocents have died at the hands of the military industrial complex? These are uncomfortable questions that civil liberal discourse and right-wing jingoism deem inappropriate at any time, much less on the day we consecrate our sacred fallen. Must we never ask this question, opting instead to salute a flag and a uniform, to a representation of fidelity and sacrifice for which we cannot explain a purpose? Should we instead celebrate capitalism and its limitless atomized diversions for those able to afford them? Liberals, the guileless beneficiaries of this bloody supply chain, think it uncomfortable to ask. Fascists and jingoists, the worshippers of violence and action on behalf of the state, think it treason. We say, now is the time. We say, speak the uncomfortable words: that maybe we have consigned a generation of working class people across the world to fight and die for an ill-conceived folly to deepen the pockets of the war-profiteers.

On Memorial Day, let us endeavor to end this heedless violence. We cannot continue to divorce in our minds and culture the pageantry and pomp from the reality of our foreign policy. Let us call it what it is: death and profit purchased with the brutal ends and blighted futures of so many. It is not a day to celebrate a uniform or a sale price. It is, as it was intended, a day to consecrate those who died. May they not have died in vain; may their memories guide us to a better world, a peaceful and humane world, a world where they might have lived the lives they gave. 

The DSA Veterans’ Working Group seeks to provide a conduit for veterans to connect with their communities and with each other to fight for our shared goals: racial, economic, social, environmental, gender, religious and disability rights justice. We oppose militarism, jingoism, and war-profiteering, having witnessed and experienced the effects of these in our own lives. We reject the misuse of United States of America tax funds to support imperialism and adventurism abroad instead of rightfully safeguarding the welfare of all people residing within our country. Our mission continues as organizers and comrades helping to enact democratic socialism. Join us at: https://www.dsausa.org/veterans_working_group  

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