Can We Remember Truthfully on Memorial Day?

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    Some conversations can haunt you long after they have taken place. I had one decades ago with a woman whose son was on the battlefield during World War II. Fortunately, at the end of the war he returned home without physical injury. But inwardly he was maimed. He suffered grievously from moral injury and psychological trauma.

    The elderly woman told me she overheard her son speaking to someone on the phone. She assumed he was talking to another veteran. During the course of the conversation, with a broken voice he said, “I have walked over too many bodies.” Within weeks of her hearing him speak those words, her son committed suicide.

    His memories were devastating. He didn’t see himself as a hero. He didn’t return home with recollections that filled him with pride, even though he likely felt that the cause for which he fought was right. But he couldn’t escape memories of the victims of his efforts.

    The sort of moral injury and inward trauma experienced by that young man has afflicted many, some of whom, like the woman’s son, have resorted to suicide. Thankfully, more attention is being given to this deeply distressing type of woundedness. The men and women afflicted by it need our love and the support of those most equipped to help them in their struggles.

    On Memorial Day, there seems to be no room for the kind of truthful memory that leads to remorse. While it is right to remember those who took deadly risks for our nation in war, it is also important not to forget those who have been killed by those sent to fight America’s wars. The memories of the morally injured combatants are far more truthful, though agonizing, than the sort of “memory” promoted on Memorial Day

    Sanitized “memory” reinforces the belief that America was an innocent party in all wars the nation has been involved in, fighting only when there was no other choice, and fighting only for the most noble reasons: to defend the oppressed, to uphold freedom, and preserve democracy. None of that is true.

    Memorial Day remembrance exercises are all too often exercises in false memory. Yes, lost loved ones are rightly grieved, and courageous and sacrificial actions are justly admired. But it is definitely not true that all American wars have been for just causes or fought in a just manner.

    To “remember” in a way that suggests otherwise, as has been done in both political speeches and in many sermons, is deceptive and destructive. Theologian Miroslav Volf has insightfully written, “To remember something incorrectly is, in an important sense, not to remember at all—[w]e do not remember to the precise extent that what we remember is incorrect . . . so that we unwittingly pass fictions for truths.”

    Memorial Day is not primarily an occasion for grief and for remembering specific individuals, though it certainly serves that purpose for those who have lost loved ones in war. But the actual function of Memorial Day is to rehearse the American story and foster a deeper love and connection to it. In other words, it is an exercise in a sort of spiritual formation. But the American story implied or expressed at Memorial Day omits crucial truths while distorting others.

    First of all, unlike the memory of the traumatized, mortally wounded veteran I discussed earlier, Memorial Day has no place for remembering the vast number of dead bodies America has walked on. He was not unmindful of the sacrifices of those who were alongside him on battlefields. But neither was he forgetful of the many lives that he and other Americans were instrumental in sacrificing. That painful, truthful memory weighed on him in a tragic way.

    But such truth has touched the hearts and minds of very few Americans. A recent study concluded that since World War II over 20 million people have been killed in U.S. led wars and military operations. The victims of the American armed ventures are spread over 37 different countries. The authors of the study note that “the victims are not just from big nations or one part of the world… Virtually all parts of the world have been the target of U.S. intervention.” The number of Americans killed in war during this time period pale in comparison to the lives that have been taken. It is reasonable to ask, as some have, “Is America addicted to war?”

    Former President Jimmy Carter recently called the United States “the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” And there is good reason for that description. During the entire history of the U.S., there have only been 21 full years during which there has been peace. Of the 243 years the United States has existed, it has been engaged in some form of war or military armed conflict during at least a portion of 226 of those years. In order for there to be truthful remembering on Memorial Day, the propensity of the nation to engage in war far and wide must be recognized.

    Second, Memorial Day will never be a time for truthful remembering so long as honoring the war dead is used as an occasion to promote militarism and falsely attribute noble motivations to all American wars. Year after year, we are told soldiers fight and die to “defend our freedom.” In churches, preachers often proclaim that the freedom of worship was at stake in American wars, though, in fact in no war was the freedom to worship on the line. Still some preachers have gone so far as to blasphemously compare soldiers who die on the battlefield to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

    Soldiers most often fight and die with honorable intentions that have nothing to do with the real reasons for the wars. But only rarely have American wars had anything to do with defending our freedoms or anyone else’s. It can rightly be said of World War II. But most of the conflicts the U.S. has fought has had far more to do with advancing or preserving economic advantage. Protecting corporate interests has all too often been pursued militarily in the name of protecting “the American way of life.”

    While politicians can be expected to mouth less than truthful nationalistic lines on Memorial Day, preachers should not be mimicking them, bestowing honor where honor is not due and illegitimately glorifying not only warriors but American wars. In church, we have a far better story to tell than the America story, particularly a sanitized version of that story. We have the Jesus story. The story of his loving, nonviolent life is the one that should shape our lives and vision.