I have trouble with Memorial Day.
Truthfully, I have trouble with all holidays, but this one has an extra few levels of confusion. I’ve never been able to process feeling a certain way just because society or tradition says I’m supposed to. I don’t have that association with tradition; I feel how I feel because that’s how I feel, not because it’s a day and that’s when I’m supposed to feel that way.
Every year, Memorial Day trots out what I like to call the “guilt-trip meme.” It will show soldiers saluting a coffin with a flag draped over it, or a small child being handed a flag, and the caption will say some variation of “just in case you thought it was National BBQ Day.”
That seems rather insulting to our intelligence, especially in a country that puts the military on an untouchable pedestal and no matter how much of the budget is put in defense, one side of the aisle will constantly say that they’re underfunded and underappreciated. Nevermind that they turn around and slash the VA, slash benefits for citizens that include veterans, do nothing to help the homeless and only reference homeless veterans when trying to force a case of moral superiority about taking in refugees… The military itself seems to be regarded as a single entity, through which no member can be criticized, and doing so is somehow the equivalent of treason or supporting the enemy. I was a teenager when the Iraq War started; I remember the rhetoric that surrounded it. Never mind things like “Facts”, if you didn’t have a yellow ribbon on your car, that meant that you supported 9/11 and were un-American.
I’ve always seen things like yellow ribbons as purely symbolic. They have their purpose and I don’t mind that, but when their purpose is “look how much better of a person I am than you,” it loses that original intent, doesn’t it? Saying “support the troops” and carrying that yellow ribbon doesn’t mean a thing if that’s the extent to which you supposedly support the troops. And it’s so often used as a blanket phrase that those who participate in it are dehumanized the basis of arguments of morality and self-righteousness.
You can’t exist in America for five minutes without knowing that Memorial Day is about the military. Nobody in the world thinks that it’s National BBQ Day. We know that we’re supposed to remember the fallen veterans on this day, but some of the freedoms for which they fought, that we’re supposed to remember them for, include having BBQs on an off-work day. Are we instead to stay somber the entire time? Then people will say “no, don’t be sad, celebrate the freedoms that those who fell protected for you.” Then we begin the whole vicious circle again. Can I have a BBQ but only if I’m sad? How long do I have to be sad? Is it just a BBQ that is disrespectful to what the day means, or do pig roasts get included too? I’m just trying to understand this as someone who wants to show the proper appreciation that, as I said in the beginning, I will never understand how to portray just because I’m supposed to.
I respect anyone who could give up years of their life in service to their country, and sacrifice their youth, family, and private lives in order to represent their country, believing in honor, service, respect, and dedication. I get that. I nearly enlisted myself, and I didn’t stop until just before the swearing-in ceremony, mostly because I was told to lie and I couldn’t live with that, and because it also hit me at that moment that: holy shit, this is the kind of social grouping that will destroy me inside. I don’t respond well to being yelled at, I’m not able to do things just because someone asked/demanded me to. It’s not for me, and by that I mean no disrespect to anyone for whom it works. That’s just not the way my brain processes things.
There’s a long line of military history in my family. My mother’s side is descended directly from the Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of the Flagship Niagara, for whom there is a Perry named in every generation, my son included. My grandfather and his brother both served, and I learned a lot about the service, history of that era, and nuclear science because of him. I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to see some of the things I did, but I was ten and who I was I going to tell? His brother served in early Vietnam. We were told never to ask about it.
I have a fan who served on the USS Paul Hamilton and wrote me letters about my column keeping him connected to home while he was away at sea. I’ve received letters from military wives who thank me for distracting them from that empty spot in the bed, some of which will never be filled again. I see the WWE, who back up what they say, and go there and perform for the troops in person, bringing a little bit of home to them as they’re separated by worlds, cultures, and duty. I’ve been sent tokens and items from those in the military who felt that what I wrote somehow mattered to them in that time, and I have no idea how some bullshit I put on the internet can do that, but it means the world all the same. I’m not speaking on these issues as someone completely disconnected from this reality.
One of my best friends is a veteran who is bisexual, and often has to deal with people from veteran groups sexually harassing her or denying her right to be recognized for who she is. I know several trans people online who struggle every day with their right to exist, despite having served their country, which is supposed to be something that the people criticizing them see as the ultimate good deed. Out of the other side of the same mouths, they still hear the same shitty arguments that are used against transpeople everywhere in order to remind them of their place in society.
My grandfather is the one who told me more about his experience than anyone else. And even still, he managed to remain distant and vague about certain things, which were his rights to do so. I’m owed no one’s experience or stories, but I’m grateful when I do. We lost him in 2015, and I gave the eulogy at his military service funeral where he was interred. The majesty, specificity, and ceremony were something I’ve never experienced anywhere else, and to see my grandfather honored in such a way is still awe-inspiring. I have his military picture and dog tags placed appropriately in a mini-shrine in my collection of special moments and autographs, complete with the obituary and a picture of us from the 1995 World Series. I loved my grandfather, and I remember him every day, not just today because that’s when I’m supposed to. I understand that holidays hold that significance of reminders and duty, but it doesn’t process for me. I hold it against no one for observing in that way, it’s just not for me.
“Support the troops” though, something always bothered me about that. Much in the same way that “thoughts and prayers” are a vague platitude that sometimes represent a substitute for any actual effort, supporting them in the ways they’re used in guilt-trip and moral superiority arguments is really just that: “I’m a better person than you because I do this more selflessly or actively think well of X conflict and you don’t.”
I want to support the troops by making sure they have access to the medical care they deserve, and that is not exclusive from the rights of anyone else to have healthcare. We’ve somehow gotten to a point in this country where healthcare is seen as a privilege, and if we are going to thump our chests about how much we love the military, can we at least also make an effort not to forget about them the second they get home? Can we do more than say “thank you for your service” and actually show gratitude? How about we not get into more stupid conflicts where they get killed? False pretenses, assets, whatever other bullshit reason politicians decide to use the military rather than do anything themselves, can we do all we can to not have to put them in that danger? I often think those in the 40’s get the title “greatest generation” because they answered the call and were conscripted during a time of international war, and it’s amazing how much gets left out of that story so that we can feel proud about how awesome we are. The shirt I’ve seen that shows an American flag with the title : Back-to-Back World War Champions just reeks of a willful, ethnocentric misunderstanding of a global conflict, where the Russians were the ones who got to Berlin, we only got involved when it was us attacked, before which we were chummy with Hitler and turned away Jewish refugees, and World War I barely involved us at all, but we get to take carte blanche credit and brag about our country’s untouchable superiority? And anyone who doesn’t say that is somehow taking the side of the enemy?
Much the same way as gender, sexuality, identity, neurodivergence, politics, and many other aspects of life are not as binaried as the “leave it be” status quo would like it, it is not traitorous to acknowledge that we aren’t the only people in the world. It’s not traitorous or disrespectful to the military to not want to see them go into yet another war where they have to die when they shouldn’t have to.
On the back of some Jeeps, I often see an American flag on the spare tire with the caption: There’s only one. Only one what? Flag? America? Country? Jeep with that cover? Just because it has an American flag doesn’t automatically make it universally understood. And a lot of the same people who regard that flag is the ultimate untouchable symbol that’s been desecrated by queer interlopers and liberals, they also fly the Confederate flag as a symbol of “American heritage,” “state’s rights,” or whatever other bullshit reason they choose to fly a flag that represents white supremacy, the continuation and spread of slavery, and literally committing treason against America. Yet that’s the most patriotic place in the country, and flying a flag that was about separating from it is American heritage? Yeah, okay, and the swastika was just the representation of the German commitment to fair labor practices. For anyone, especially in the North, who flies that flag, especially when it’s ABOVE the American flag, yet lectures me about how much the flag is awesome and should mean X, Y, and Z to me, I will never be able to comprehend the mind pretzel into which you must twist yourself to believe that revisionist, Lost-Cause influenced bullshit. But the Confederates were traitors and fighting for their states’ rights to keep owning slaves, even spreading it into South and Central America. They wanted a white supremacy empire founded completely on the notion of white superiority and slavery as a national institution. To say it had nothing to do with slavery is ignorant, incorrect, and just another bullshit apologetic you’ve used as to not be an asshole.
I know that Memorial Day is about the military. Same for Veteran’s Day. Add in the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Flag Day, Armed Services Day, Opening Day, and many others that are militarized, one would have to be willfully ignorant to think otherwise. I just want to know what the appropriate way to regard it is so that I don’t have to read those memes anymore, because I don’t think having a BBQ on Memorial Day is the same thing as “thinking that’s what it’s about entirely.” We know better than that, or at least we should.
I miss you, Grandpa Jack. I miss everything you taught me about the military and history, and there is a part of my life I’ll never get back because you told stories in a way that seeing them in a book just can’t match. I haven’t seen you since I unexpectedly walked into a room where you had just passed, and every single day, I regret not traveling more to see you, or calling you to hear more stories, or appreciating the time I had with you more than I did. You probably wouldn’t understand me right now, and we’d have crossed that bridge when we came to it, but there’s nothing in my life that will ever replace the spot you had in it. I’m lucky to have had so many years of my life without losing a grandparent, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
Thank you to anyone who made that choice to serve, regardless of the circumstances, and I hope none of you feel disrespected by any of these sentiments. If I have, please tell me how I can correct my behavior, as long as it’s not the exact empty platitudes and symbols I’ve already explained. Thank you.