Marking Memorial Day, we are meant to honor those in the military who died in war – but I perennially ask myself on this day, “Why?” Warmaking is a most sinful and barbaric endeavor. Honoring people simply for fighting in war, using language of sacrifice and service, merely perpetuates the myths of militarism. Each year, Catholics are swept up in the dangerous nationalism of this day and lend their voice to the cultic remembrance of soldiers who died in war. Enough. Catholics must stop participating in Memorial Day, and start peacemaking with our lives every single day through mourning.
Letting Go of Myths & Honor
To honor someone usually implies they contributed positively to our world and expressed virtuous traits routinely in their life’s journey. I admit that in war individuals may act virtuously in moments that preserve life, but on the whole soldiering is a poor profession to honor. Participation in Memorial Day strengthens the myths that the military is a good force, a service, a suitable career, or worthy of our praise. Catholics cannot hold this view about the US military, the lethal arm of that greatest purveyor of violence in the world which is America, according to Rev. Martin Luther King.
Catholics cannot extol any longer the mythical virtues of soldiering or warmaking. We must jettison this false cult of honor accorded to those in the military. Parades, ceremonies, and moments of silence that speak in the language of service or that pretend these deaths preserve American freedoms merely lend credibility to the myth these deaths had purpose. Or at least purpose beyond the idiocy of anti-Communism, the bloodlust after 9/11, or the protection of US oil interests. World War II may be a justified war, but no other military action our nation took in the 20th century or now even approaches justified.
There is no honor in what our nation has done – sent young people to be killed, and even worse to kill and live on scarred. There is no honor in the routine slaughter of innocent civilians or the use of napalm or drone strikes. There is no honor in waves of homeless veterans who cannot get healthcare for their war wounds, turning to addiction and abuse. There is no honor in using hate speech, racism, and inhumanity to get 18 year olds to murder against their conscience. There is no honor in a military where women are more likely to be raped today than killed in combat. There is no honor in the utter destruction of nations. There is no honor in the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. There is no honor. There is none.
Mourning as Peacemaking
So what do these war dead tell us? How do we commemorate tragedy? What is the call for Catholics? Their voices from the grave are simple, their message is pure and it is one with Christ’s call for every one of us: peace.
Catholics must rely on our tradition to understand how to move past the myths of Memorial Day – we must not honor, for there is nothing to honor, but we must mourn. Mourning the dead from war – the soldiers of all sides, the innocent children, the civilians cut down -this is a healthy task for Catholic peacemakers. These deaths from warmaking mourned daily drive me to enact peace in my personal interactions while challenging the US government’s violence.
This mourning isn’t wrapped up in layers of the American flag, but it strips bare the reality of warmaking: it is an abhorrent practice, one that can never be justified in the Christian tradition today, and it is the duty of every Catholic to oppose as they can the militarism of American’s empire. Mourning rids us of the hindering language of service, sacrifice, honor, bravery and enables us to speak truly: these war dead died needlessly to fuel the unjust causes of the political elite. Their deaths did not sustain American freedoms nor liberate foreign populations. Their deaths are pointless and void of any good. Their deaths are simply tragedies in the fullest manner.
For the loved ones of the war dead, and for those who support the wars, this reality is a painful endpoint – and yet, admitting pure tragedy as the only meaning to the these deaths is an essential step to peacemaking. To effectively overcome the criminal enterprising at the Pentagon and from war profiteers and to end political will for war, we must deal with the painful truth that American military actions are contradictory to peace and the values of the United States.
And so, as Catholics opt out of Memorial Day, we must fervently turn to mourning as a spiritual practice. We must include American soldiers and civilians in the nations we ravage by name in our prayers, encompassing the pain of their loved ones and the loss to our world of these lives if we can. We must personalize these current losses, set in a context of the millions slaughtered at the altar of the Pentagon in wars past. We must mourn in our tears and anguish that combat persists, and then we must find in this Christ’s peace that will strengthen us to take a step forward and louden our call for love.