Memorial Day: The Cost of War

There is a paradox between Unitarian Universalists and the military that may never be resolved. While there is both strong history of Unitarians and Universalists in the military, since becoming UUA there has been a cultural chasm that seems to have developed. There are a few of us sitting in the bottom of that chasm, existing somewhere between the two.

Memorial Day began in the United States after the Civil War as a means to recognize the sacrifice and high cost of war on both sides. It was not then a commercialized three-day weekend or nominally-patriotic outing to a park. Decoration Day, as it was often called back then, was practiced by laying flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, even in places where the disdain for the issues of the war had been as high as Columbus, Mississippi. Various locations observed various dates, but it was Union Veterans themselves who argued for May 30th as the date, since it therefore didn’t coincide with any particular battle either won or loss. Because it was about recognizing the loss on both sides. It was about holding a place for death and loss and grieving.

Memorial Day is the time that we should recognize and consider the high cost of war. Not the billions of dollars spent but the number of priceless lives lost. The children who will grow up never knowing their parent. The mothers who will never see their children graduate college or start families. The brothers and sisters who will forever keep a picture on a mantel.

That cost of war is so high, that we cannot and should not go into it lightly. Memorial Day should not be practiced as a day of pride about military conquest or blanket glamorization of all military deaths, but as a day of remembrance about the cost of war. A day to recognize the price we pay as a people for the failures of our politicians. Failures for which they are rarely held accountable, but ones which every battlefield commander is judged by.

To those who want to advocate for a national day of recognition for all the civilians and non-combatants killed in war, I support you. To those who think more should be done to recognize the courage and impact of Conscientious Objectors, I agree as well and you have my vote. Conscientious Objection is as old as the first colonies in the US and is an important part of the American military and political landscape. But don’t let your desire for these things react to the blind nationalism and commercialism to which Memorial Day often succumbs. Allow yourself to recognize the cost of war paid by the blood of those who served, willfully or unwillfully, in the military.

We used to say in the military that “War is not about dying for your country. War is about making the other guy die for his.” US military deaths are not the price of “freedom.” They are the price of war. War in our country has rarely been about freedom. But war is always about death. Memorial Day is about those deaths and the legacy of pain and suffering they leave for the families, the friends, and the fellow soldiers. And no amount of patriotic, nationalistic, jingoism will ever fill the spaces left by those deaths.

There is no way to make you feel better about this.

There is no happy ending to this story.

But for this moment, sit in your gloominess and melancholy.

Know that hundreds of thousands of families, friends, and surviving veterans, live in this state on a regular basis, some for the rest of their lives.

This too is part of the cost of war.