The coals in the backyard grill are cold, and the beer cans have been recycled. The patriotic songs are over, and the hyper-inflated political speeches are done. Memorial Day has passed.
There is no more contradictory day on the calendar, no day when so much oratorical fiction replaces those disturbances called facts.
Here’s what we say: Memorial Day is for remembrance, for the living and dead, who served and did what they were called upon to do, no matter the awful cost.
Here’s what we don’t:
The day is a monument to forgetting, forgetting how circumstances have been engineered such that the politicians who order men and women off to war pay absolutely no price for doing so, and the rest of us vote as though war comes for free.
History blames Richard Nixon for ending the draft in 1973 as a way to silence the thousands who objected to the Vietnam War and who threatened his illusion of control. If a kid didn’t have to go to war, the thought was, he wouldn’t march in the street. As with some other events, the president misjudged, but his decision, which led to the creation of an all-volunteer fighting force, has sweetened the lives of Presidents, Senators and Congressmen ever since.
Forty-three years have passed since the draft was halted. The youngest generation of current voters was born as the war was ending. Too many of the rest of us never paid enough attention or remember now: a knowledge of history has never been Americans’ strong suit. The now familiar numbers about the 1 percent and the 99 have a terrible second meaning that has nothing to do with wealth. One percent of the population is fighting for the rest of us, who suffer none of the sacrifice.
Out of sight, out of mind, and out of the hair of politicians, most of whom also did not volunteer for the chance to take a bullet for the country (and neither have their children), but are very happy to dispatch a few kids, over and over and over, to places where the possibility for an American victory is as remote as it was in Vietnam.
The most vituperative Republicans who ridicule Barack Obama for his impulse to negotiate don’t know what one of their political ancestors did. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” Dwight Eisenhower said, “only one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
The emptiest words in the language now are “thank you for your service,” said to men and women who endure tour after tour after tour, more concussive terror than a person should ever be asked to bear, because the rest of us are so dissociated from war’s misery.
The words are empty, but we say them fervently, without even knowing what pain they are meant to ease. We thank soldiers for their service because once, in anger, some of us spat on them. That too occurred during the Vietnam War, the last time Americans knew that war never comes for free.
Tampa-based writer Mary Jo Melone is a former columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.