Gary Kamiya asks about the meaning of Memorial Day. Given, as he says, that not all wars are equal, some are imperial whereas others are liberating, should we still honor all fallen soldiers? It is a provocative question.
I believe we have to honor all of the fallen equally, those who fell in necessary wars and those who died for a politician’s folly. The distinction is between historical judgment and shared humanity. From the historical point of view, it’s undeniable that we experience something different when we remember those who died in World War II than we do when we remember those who died in Vietnam. In both cases, the fallen men and women gave their lives for us. But — tragically — only those in the first group actually saved us. They beat Hitler; they saved the world. Those in the second group died because American officials in thrall to the domino theory decided that we had to stop communism from spreading through Southeast Asia. We feel deep gratitude and sorrow for both groups. But for the first, our gratitude is of a different nature, because it is a gratitude not only for the sacrifice made but for the actual achievement.
Reverence and reflection know no politics. . . . In the end it is our common humanity that calls us, war supporter or war opponent, hawk or dove, to remember those who died. We honor the dead, whether they fell on our side or that of our adversary, because of our shared humanity.
In detaching “reverence and reflection” from “politics,” Kamiya cleverly attempts to veil the meaning of Memorial Day: in his writing, it is less a national holiday and more an opportunity to remember the fallen dead. The circumstances of their deaths—engaged in a national(ist) project—are less important than the fact of their deaths.
His most stunning—and unsurprising—move, however, is to translate American national sentiment into a sense of “common humanity.” Throughout his essay, he moves from the interpellating pronouns of “us” and “we,” often, though not always, identified as American, to the abstraction of “common” and “shared” humanity. A skeptical reader is then taught that “common humanity” should be synonymous with feeling for American soldiers or, in short, feeling American. Yet another abstraction.
That “humanity” should emanate from America (“we give the most money out; we are the world’s biggest humanitarians”) is unsurprising. But that is too easy a target.
Throughout the current endeavor, Americans have been asked to mobilize behind the troops, to “support our troops,” even as those troops are abstracted past their labor and duties. As Glenn Greenwald points out, “support our troops” has become a way to discipline politicians who might be allowed to disapprove of the war but must always “support our troops.”
It is a rallying cry that has the power to sever affect from action. One can feel for the “boys” as they fight a “terrible” enemy, a construction that emphasizes youth and innocence against the mysterious, inhuman shadows. Alternatively, one can feel for the “brave men and women,” a construction that sets up the sexually mixed military as a metonym for the national home, always understood as heterosexual. Such feeling can be, and implicitly, should be, detached from what the troops do. As we know, they simply “follow orders,” which is “necessary” in a time of war.
Rituals of remembering are part of every nation’s history. But we learn nothing from history when we detach such remembering from the material conditions of war. We learn nothing if “reverence” and “respect” cannot also be accompanied by critique: of nationalism, of imperialism, of our own complicity.
Kamiya knows this lesson, as his final paragraph points out. Writing to an anonymous soldier (racialized and nationalized as Smith), he promises,
So this Memorial Day is for you, Sergeant Smith. You died in a pointless war, but we here highly resolve that you shall not have died in vain. In your name, we vow that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom. We pledge that we, the people, will reclaim our country. And we swear that we will never again send our brothers off to fight unjustifiable wars.
And here we learn the real lesson of Memorial Day: not to avoid conflict, but to make sure that conflict is justifiable. One hears, in this declaration, “you shall shall not have died in vain,” the engine that continues to propel war. In Kamiya’s article, Memorial Day reminds us that nationalism is sustained by war. It is less that we learn about our shared humanity. Instead, we learn the meaning of nationalism: grounded in, secured by, and washed in blood.