We hear it everywhere these days–five words directed towards women and men in military uniform, but also directed towards “vets”–people whose histories include “time served” in some branch of the armed services. TV show hosts say those five words before adding, “Let’s give a hand to the brave people in uniform who keep us safe.” Government officials shout it out in military gatherings, “Thank you for your service to the greatest democracy in the world.”
School systems partake in the spirit of it all by surprising an elementary or middle school-aged child during a reading or math class with a father’s (rarely a mother’s) sudden appearance–back home from the war zone safe and sound–at least for now. Airlines “support our troops” by inviting men and women in uniform (usually wearing army fatigues) to board their flight before the rest of us do. It’s a trite phrase, “Thank you for your service,” repeated over and over again much like, “Have a nice day.” What exactly are we thanking our men and women in uniform for?
Some would say our brave young women and men keep us (citizens of the USA) safe from those who would take “freedom” (our way of life, our values, whatever it is we hold dear) from us. In other words, those in military service are our saviors. They give up their lives (or are willing to do so) in order that we may live. In mythology, stories with this theme abound. Who of us is not familiar with the Christian story/myth telling about Jesus dying for our sins so that we may live eternally–free from death, the consequences of our sin? So, thank you vets for dying (or, at least being willing to die) so that we can live.
Perhaps thanking people in military uniform for their service is a way of ameliorating an epoch of our dark history. When Vietnam veterans returned home from their stint fighting an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, they were spat upon by their fellow American citizens. So, thank you vets–we’re sorry about our past behavior–we’d like to apologize and thank you for your service, nonetheless.
Some people have a pacifist ideology and think war should never happen. Well, “thank you for your service” is a way to distinguish between the soldier (military) and the person (human being)–much like some Christians today who attempt to distinguish between the “sin” and the “sinner.” We love the sinner (so they say), but we hate the sin (homosexuality, abortion, whatever). So, we are given an “out.” We can hate the war, but love the soldier even if the soldier is doing stuff that is abominable–often under the guise of “liberating” a country which almost always causes mayhem and death on a mass scale.
Soldiers (as well as the public) may not even be aware of the military’s agenda (as in Vietnam) or maybe soldiers (and the rest of us) are duped into thinking that peace is attainable through violent means. Just what are we thanking service members for when their very presence in a power-hungry (or misguided, at best) institution (U.S. Military) is complicit with carrying out unspeakable destruction–landscape, animals, and people, all under the guise of peace?
I have never understood why countries are willing to go to war (either a war of aggression or defense), risking the lives of populations, for the sake of honor, freedom, and justice, however those terms get defined. The end result is always death. In order to make “death by war” appealing, we’ve had to immerse ourselves in particular stories (myths) about the glories of fighting and dying in battle for our country/tribe/nation. Stories inform us. They speak to us on a level that shape our worldview–how we understand ourselves in relation to the wider world. Individually and collectively, we absorb the “truths” of those mythologies we embrace so it’s no surprise, really, to find our citizens extolling the virtues of war as “the” way to obtain life, liberty, and justice for all.
Unlike Veteran’s Day, when all service members (past and present) are honored, Memorial Day is a time when we (as a nation) pause to remember the sacrifice of those who have paid the ultimate price while “serving” their country. For many Americans, this is a sacred time, fitting nicely into what sociologist Robert Bellah (1927-2013) called America’s “civil religion.” He argued that we have created sacred symbols drawn from our national history which have permeated the fabric of American culture and public life. (Those symbols are not entirely divorced from our Judeo-Christian heritage.) So, our beliefs (ideology based on stories/myths) about war (we can save ourselves and others by fighting and dying for those beliefs) has taken root and provides the glue that gives a degree of cohesion to our country.
We have Memorial Day parades (ritual) with American flags (symbol), marching bands (often playing tunes associated with war), and speeches that sound like preachers drawing parallels between the ancient Israelites fighting an enemy (with God on their side) and America (also with God on its side) battling “godless” communism and those “out there” who hate our freedoms. By tapping into the structure of religion, national leaders use a people’s need for community to further their own agendas–agendas that are rooted in the “belief” that war ultimately brings healing and peace–at least, for the victors.
It’s way past time to discard those parts of our mythologies that call for and glorify war. They don’t serve us well. What if we thought of ourselves, not as warrior-like (hardly a year went by in the 20th century that we were not at war), but as life-giving? Our various mythologies (Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, etc.) already contain the seeds we need in order to envision ourselves in life-giving ways. For example, “…[W]hoever kill[s] a human being…shall be regarded as having killed all mankind; and…whoever save[s] a human life shall be regarded as having saved all mankind” (Koran 5:32). Also, “…[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more….” (Micah 4: 3b).
I long for the day when the mythology that informs us–dying for one’s country as a just way to maintain honor and obtain freedom–will fade away. The concepts of honor, freedom and justice (concepts many think are worth fighting and dying for) are fluid, changing over time in how they play out in society. Some of our ancestors thought justice meant treating one’s slaves honorably or “well.” Freedom meant living in joyous service to one’s master. Today, we reject these interpretations of how honor, freedom, and justice should be “lived out” in society. When we remember those who have died for particular definitions of honor, freedom, and justice this Memorial Day, let us imagine a time when honor, freedom, and justice mean giving life, not taking it.
“I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” (George McGovern)
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.