What is the Real Meaning of Memorial Day?

May 23, 2015—Every holiday has telltale signs of its arrival. At Halloween, it’s jack-o-lanterns, giant inflatable pumpkins and candy shaped like vegetables. At Christmas, it’s trees, houses decorated with lights and the ubiquity of a bearded old guy.

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Even smaller holidays Memorial_Day_Parade_DChave their signs. For Memorial Day, it’s historically been parades, family get-togethers and neighborhood cookouts. But the last few years there’s been another sign – postings on social media of pictures of caskets draped in American flags and of mourning military families. These images start making their appearance several days before Memorial Day, signaling the arrival of the holiday weekend.

I must confess that I dread the onslaught of internet memes reminding us “what Memorial Day is really about.” It’s not that I disagree with reminding Americans of the sacrifices that military personnel and their families make. Quite the contrary, I think that Americans willfully shield themselves from the true hardships that military families endure.

The reason for my dead, rather, is that these reminders come off more as hypocritical propaganda for the warfare state than it does real sorrow. Why? Because it is almost universally true that the people who most wish to display “the real meaning of Memorial Day” are the loudest cheerleaders for a bellicose foreign policy, one that necessarily results in more separated families and military casualties. For 51 and a half weeks a year they support policies that put ever-increasing numbers of American troops in harm’s way, that wrest husbands from wives and parents from children. It’s only over a three-day weekend at the end of May that the personal impact of these policies ever seems to hit home.

It’s all well and good to share a sad picture, maybe of a military widow lying on the grave of her fallen husband, but the proof of how much that image touches someone is reflected in how willing they are to have the government pursue policies that will create more widows and orphans. Yet only rarely does the the advocate of a mournful Memorial Day combine that message with a stated desire to reduce American casualties.

Sometimes it seems like Americans only want to honor the troops after they’re gone.

Now, I know what the response to this will be (after all the cursing has stopped). The response will be, “Yes, but sacrifices must be made for our freedom.” Fair enough, but shouldn’t we at least be sure that our freedom is truly at risk before we send our young men and women to some Memorial-Day-Gravesforeign land to be shot at?

The answer for the Memorial Day lecturers is an emphatic, “No!”

“Of course our safety in imperiled. The government says so,” they reason. When it comes to risking the lives of the troops, the assurance of politicians, which on all other counts is scorned, is reason enough. This seems an odd standard for arguably the most important area of political policy today.

What Americans need to consider is that when politicians engage the country in foreign conflicts, they are not calling upon some faceless mass called “the troops” to make sacrifices. They’re playing with the lives of flesh and blood human beings, with families and futures on the line. These people, the troops, are individuals who deserve to be respected before they go off to war as much as we claim to respect them when they come back.

I have a suggestion for Americans. Rather than focus on the images of soldiery sacrifice, focus on a foreign policy that requires less of it. Advocate the reduction of the United States’ military presence around the world. Refuse to support any wars that are not defensive, in which American lives and liberties are not imminently in danger. Scale back the military and align our foreign policy with something more closely resembling what the founding generation would have recognized as prudent – and American.

If we really want to respect the troops, let’s start by not senselessly and wantonly risking their lives. That’s what Memorial Day should really be about – applying the reality of the troops’ sacrifice, and that of their families, to the foreign policy we support.

How are you commemorating Memorial Day weekend? Let us know in the comments.

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