Call him drunken Ira Hayes,
He won’t answer any more.
Not the whiskey-drinking Indian,
Nor the Marine who went to war.
The Ballad of Ira Hayes — recorded by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan
& others; written by Peter La Farge
Speaking as a veteran on Memorial Day, you might indulge me as I voice a couple of gripes about this day and the absurdity it has become.
First, I hate the commercialization. Everywhere you look, there’s a Memorial Day Sale. Every fast food joint is trying to cash-in on the long holiday weekend while insinuating some kind of quasi-patriotism by “free” offers to active military and veterans including free “Freedom” Fries at Wendy’s, free boneless chicken wings at Hooters, and a free “All American Burger” at Shoney’s.
I hate the fact that to take advantage of the free stuff on offer vets have to show a military ID or discharge papers, because others who never served a day in uniform have taken advantage. I hate the thought that a homeless vet who might actually need a square meal, but who doesn’t have his sh*t together enough to lay hands on his discharge papers, could be denied a hot dinner because the fraudulent among us have kept him from it.
I hate the thought that the rank commercialism I see all around me is a means for businesses, from profit motives, to cynically exploit America’s honored dead. If the offers were really meant out of a sense of patriotic gratitude, as opposed to exploiting a commercial opportunity, why not simply provide meal coupons to the VA clinics and hospitals, and/or the veteran’s support and social services organizations, where they can be distributed to needy veterans whose needs are known to the staff, as opposed to putting the onus on the vet to prove that he’s a vet?
Or is the real purpose simply to put butts in seats over the long Memorial Day weekend that serves as a kind of Kick-off to Summer? I hope that’s not the case, because someone would have to be a real low-life — I mean like a low-life maggot child molester — to do something as inherently wicked and insensitive as that. And allow me to include the advertising agencies who take part.
I hate the fact that free stuff is offered to living veterans on Memorial Day at all. Veteran’s Day is different. On Veteran’s Day we honor living veterans. So honor the vets on Veteran’s Day with as much free stuff as you like. But on Memorial Day, we honor our dead. And dead veterans don’t need your free stuff. They don’t even need your gratitude. They just need your respect. It would be far better to give free stuff to the surviving spouses and children of dead veterans, who are no longer there to protect and support the families they once loved — because they gave their lives for the country they once loved.
It seems to me far more patriotic for a restaurant owner to offer a free meal on Memorial Day to 10 dead veteran’s families, as opposed to 100 living veterans, or to provide a $10,000 scholarship fund for a veteran’s children, as opposed to spending $10,000 in loss leaders and advertising to promote a business. It would be far more patriotic for a hotel owner to offer a surviving wife or husband with young children a 3-day vacation in a poolside room with free room service and cable movies. The surviving spouse probably needs a vacation with his or her spouse dead and gone. That, to me, would be honoring the dead veteran, by supporting his or her living kin. I doubt anything of the kind will ever happen, though. Because that would actually be charitable, as opposed to being exploitive of our service dead like some kind of shameless moral degenerate.
I hate the fact that veterans themselves have been suckered by all the quasi-patriotic media frenzy into ostentatious displays of having served. There was a time when veterans served their terms of enlistment and then went home to get on with their lives, to raise families, and to help build their communities with quiet dignity. There was a tradition of maintaining a reserved demeanor about having served. Nobody made a lot of noise about it. There was no such thing as the modern crime of ‘Theft of Valor’ (punishable under statute, as if such a thing were even possible), because no one would consider parading themselves around falsely as war heroes. On every block in my neighborhood growing up, there were a half-dozen war heroes. Most were untouched by combat. Some bore the scars of burned flesh, a disfigured face, missing fingers, or shattered limbs.
Others bore scars unseen, whose suffering was less apparent, the men like Ira Hayes who live amongst us. They suffered the horrors of war in silence, unable to pour out of their heads the sights, sounds and smells of combat that had once poured in. Those veterans, whose sense-memories had been etched forever by the high-octane adrenalin of combat, could forget nothing and suffered a private inner hell replete with private demons. They tried to kill those demons with whiskey and pain pills. They might have wished they themselves had died in combat. Instead, they met less prosaic ends: frozen dead to their porch steps, impaled on the steering column of the family car in a head-on collision with a bridge abuttment, or with their brains hanging from a dank basement ceiling. We do not judge them because we cannot judge them. We can only include them among our honored dead.
I hate the fact that politicians have politicized military service, have attempted to colonize the political “moral highground” by showy and noisy displays of support for the military services and for veterans. I hate their loud, obnoxious, breast-beating condemnations over the sins of those less pretentious, less classless, and less overwrought than themselves in their supposed “gratitude” towards those who have served. I hate the fact that political leaders attempt to equate the sacrifice of our veterans, and in particular our honored dead, with support for their political ideology, religious values, world view, foreign policy, domestic policy, and racial or tribal identities. The typical condition of a combat infantry soldier is cold, tired, hungry, wet and scared. At other times, he’s hot, thirsty, hungry, tired and scared. Whatever his current condition, I can guarantee that the only thing on his mind is when he’ll next be dry, warm, rested, well-fed and safe. No one who stands a watch in the dark of night ever thinks about the merits of this or that political ideology. And it seems a safe bet to me that not one among our honored dead ever felt his sacrifice was only for white people, or only for black people, only for Christians or Jews, only for Republicans or Democrats, only for Protestants, or only for Catholics.
The sacrifice of those honored dead we Americans memorialize was a sacrifice for the rights, the freedoms and the dignity of all Americans. Flag-draping politicians who attempt to pervert the meaning of their sacrifice to the service of political expediency should be shouted down and vilified in the public arena as the low-life maggots they truly are. And while I think it’s fine to make money in business, to exploit the sacrifice of those we memorialize, to seek competitive advantage and gain by capitalizing on the day we’ve set aside in remembrance, that’s what I would call a true ‘Theft of Valor.’ Those who engage in such behavior need to be denounced.
We need to recover our sense of national identity and national purpose. The more that demagogues use military service and veterans in attempting to claim a distinctive class of patriotism, and to meanwhile drive divisions between us, the more loudly we should object. We need to call attention to those who exploit the sacrifice of America’s honored dead for political gain, or for profit. The sacrifice of those who gave their “last full measure of devotion” should be regarded, as Lincoln declared at Gettysburg, as a sacred secular act — one consecrated “far above our poor power to add or detract” and one that should be protected by law from exploitation for commercial purposes.
We could begin by reminding the nation that our honored dead represent all of America: all colors, all religions, all regions, all economic backgrounds, all ethnic backgrounds, every state and every territory. Just once, I’d like to see a President in office issue a call to the American Indian first nations to send their representatives to Washington in a great Memorial Day convocation, to bring with them their service banners bearing the symbols of their nations and the names of their honored dead, our American honored dead among the Indian peoples. It would be an object lesson in the truth of our motto E Pluribus Unum for those who think their skin color or heritage accords them a special place in American life.
Some might call that a special consideration shown a minority group at the expense of the white majority. But I would call it an overdue recognition of the service and sacrifice of some of our fellow Americans, whose contribution in the nation’s defense over many generations — in fact, from the very foundations of this Republic — isn’t well known and for some Americans isn’t known at all. It would also serve as a move toward reconciliation of past grievances and injury among brothers at arms and a recognition of our shared history and shared love for the nation.
I have but little hope that anything of the kind will ever happen. Instead, I have real fear that this day will continue to devolve into an orgy of commercialism and politics and it’s true meaning and purpose will be smothered by unending greed and ambition.