Friday, May 24, 2019

This Memorial Day, Will Everyone Please Be Quiet, Please?



In a perfect world, Memorial Day would be as quiet as the grave. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a country that, for the most part, observes the “holiday” with noisy, raucous patriotism. We “celebrate” the day with doorbuster sales at the local mall, the staticky sizzle of meat on the grill, and the exuberant yelp of our winterpale bodies hitting the beach for the start of Summer Living. That’s all well and good―nothing wrong with shouting hosannas to the sun―but to be true to the spirit and intent of Memorial Day, we should all shut up on Monday. At least for something longer than the obligatory moment of silence where we bow our heads while standing in a flag-fluttering cemetery.

Let it be known that I am just as guilty as many of the rest of you. Over my many Memorial Days, I have yelled, I have frolicked, I have grilled. But after serving twenty years in the Army, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation for what the day really asks of us: a somber, sober reflection of the true cost of war. Instead of woo-hooing over my three-day weekend, maybe I should be boo-hooing over a grave. At the very least, I should close my eyes and watch the war dead parade past on the screen of my eyelids, specifically the people who were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan during 2005, my year in-country. When you personally know some of those dead-and-buried warriors, Memorial Day takes on a whole new meaning.


Earlier this year, while I was reading Ben Fountain’s excellent book Beautiful Country Burn Again, I came across a passage which I immediately bookmarked and saved with the intent to share it on this particular weekend. Though the book primarily concerns itself with the 2016 presidential campaign which ended with us (not me!) electing our own President Noisemaker, the chapter “Doing the Chickenhawk with Trump” conclude with the following paragraphs (including an unexpected mention of my own Fobbit):

Since when did it become not just acceptable but expected that politicians orate on Memorial Day? Who gave them permission to speak for the violently dead? Come Monday we’ll be up to our ears in some of the emptiest, most self-serving dreck ever to ripple the atmosphere, the standard war-fantasy talk of American politics, complete with sentimentalist purlings about heroes, freedoms, the supreme sacrifice. Trump will tell us how much he loves the veterans, and how much they love him back. Down-ticket pols will re-terrorize and titillate voters with tough talk about ISIS. Hemingway, for one, despised this kind of cant, his disgust borne out in a famous passage from A Farewell to Arms, in which the wounded veteran Frederic Henry reflects:
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of the places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Here’s a proposition: We stand a better chance of understanding something about ourselves and our wars if we tune out the politicians, for one day at least, and turn our attention to a certain kind of writer: namely, the man or woman who experiences war firsthand, then devotes heart and soul to finding the correct words, the true words, for describing the reality of the thing. Crazy, right? Maybe you think I’ve been smoking that good Texas dope? The very idea, ignoring Hillary and Trump and instead reading a poem by Brian Turner or Kevin Powers, or a passage from Youngblood or Fobbit or Green on Blue. But a country going on its fifteenth year of war would seem obliged to use every tool at hand for making sense of its situation. And if looking at poems and novels seems like a radical act, that in itself might be a clue to the problem.

Or how about silence. In an era where language has been so mangled and abused, maybe the sanest thing we can do is reserve some space for silence. The National Moment of Remembrance Act puts this notion into law, encouraging a minute of silence at three p.m. local time on Memorial Day. At least then we would be spared someone trying to sell us something–cars, appliances, political agendas, war–for as long as the silence lasted, and that alone seems like a mercy. It’s hard to hijack silence, and maybe that’s the point.

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You can read the full essay, which originally appeared in The Guardian in May 2016, here. Read the essay, sure, but I also urge you to buy the book. What Ben has to say in these pages is important. For more about Beautiful Country Burn Again, you can also check out this Bill Moyers interview with Ben Fountain.


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