The recently "completed" military intervention in Iraq with the attendant dead and wounded on all sides gives us an opportunity to reflect, upon this Memorial Day, who we count among the "dead" and the definition of "war."
Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day, began May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, N.Y., to honor Civil War dead. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, president of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30 would be a day to decorate with "flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."
After World War I the day was set aside to honor the dead of all U.S. wars, and the custom was extended to pay homage to deceased relatives and friends, both military and civilian. Memorial Day was also designated Poppy Day; volunteers sell small red, artificial flowers to help disabled veterans. In 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May and made a federal holiday.
When will we remember and honor all those, whether U.S. citizens or not, who have "died" or continue to do so as a result of armed interventions, police actions, liberations, wars on "terror" and "drugs" and yes, even the occasional officially declared war?
As a veteran, I have always felt there were groups intentionally or unintentionally omitted from this remembrance. Forgotten are the Cold War atomic veterans who were exposed during the 1950s to radiation from nuclear weapons tests. Forgotten are those exposed in Vietnam to Agent Orange, which was used as a vegetation defoliant and subsequently found to be extremely toxic. Forgotten are the Gulf War I veterans who survived the toxic battlefield in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Forgotten are the POWs and MIAs from all wars and those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and those who "die" mentally and spiritually each time they recall the horrors of war. Most importantly, forgotten are those who in recent parlance are deemed to be "collateral damage" and through no fault of their own are just as "war dead" as those who wore uniforms.
Probably the least known aspect of Memorial Day honors is the congressional joint resolution approved on May 11, 1950, which authorized and requested the president "to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe each May 30, Memorial Day, by praying, each in accordance with his religious faith, for permanent peace; designating a period during such day in which all the people of the United States may unite in prayer for a permanent peace; calling upon all the people of the United States to unite in prayer at such time; and calling upon the newspapers, radio stations, and all other mediums of information to join in observing such day and period of prayer."
In President Bush's 2002 Memorial Day proclamation, he made reference to a call for peace. Presidents since 1950 have similarly done so. Given our national history since that time, the question is whether they, and we, meant it.
If you use Memorial Day as simply a day off, recognize it as the "official" beginning of the summer season, spend the day with family, friends and others or don't think about it at all, I would suggest you might look again at the original reasons for this holiday.
I would ask all of you to spend some time at a national cemetery, visit veterans in a hospital, comfort refugees who come to the United States from conflicts across the planet or remember and honor everyone who "died" from the ultimate obscenity.
The last stanza of Angela Morgan's poem "Mothers with Little Sons" reads:
For war is a knave's design
And a coward's brutal scheme,
And men whose courage is divine
Shall foster a noble dream.
O mothers with little sons,
The years lie in your hands.
You are the chosen ones,
Men wait for your commands.
Not till your lips declare:
"Our sons no more shall fight!
Shall the crimson soil be fair
And the ravaged earth be right.
I will spend this day contributing in my own small way to furthering this sentiment and create a new world where we remember the past and use it as a catalyst to finally prevent adding anyone else to the list of those who are honored on this day.
Dana Briggs is a member of Veterans for Peace, Western Washington, Chapter 92.