Memorial Day Reflection by Creative Loafing Contributor, Roman Raies. Roman is a NC resident and rising freshman at Northwestern University.
Memorial Day began after the Civil War, as a tradition to honor those who sacrificed their lives in combat. In time, the holiday evolved to commemorate those who lost their lives fighting in World War I, which took a greater human toll than any previous conflict. Today, many of you may visit cemeteries of your loved ones who lost their lives in combat or adorn a red poppy flower as a symbol of honor, sacrifice and reconciliation. The tradition of red poppies began during World War I, when Americans and French began wearing the red flowers which were among the first plants to reclaim the battle devastated landscape of once rich forest land.
America’s participation in the first world war and its establishment of the league of nations to promote world peace, marked a shift away from a period of isolationism. Perhaps, in minds of its wearers, the poppies symbolized the promise of newfound worldwide peace following the rise of America as the world’s guardian. At the time, World War I, was sometimes called “The War to End all Wars”. Of course, the first world war was anything but. Rather than ending all wars, it laid the groundwork for the next deadliest war in history, World War Two, and one of the greatest genocides in history, the Holocaust.
The promise of eventual world peace seems far fetched to all realistically minded observers. Today, America is still engaged in a complex plethora of wars, and conflicts. Since the beginning of the War in Iraq, 5,000 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in combat. The U.S. in fact, spends more money on its military than any country in the world. The irony of this, is that Americans today, are comparatively isolated from the effects of war in comparison to Americans during the first and second world wars. There are no rationing efforts to preserve steel for American troops, or bomb drills designed to prepare schoolchildren for an Air Raid by Japan or Germany. Domestic terrorists are a far greater concern. No. Instead, our story of war is one that is provided to us by the government, the media and for some, our family members who are in active service.
For those of us who do not have direct contact with veterans or active service, there is a great danger that we may become illusioned into embracing a narrative of war which runs in contrast to the reality. In his book, Empire of Illusion, journalist Chris Hedges chronicled the stories of three of the American servicemen who appear in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo of the raising of them raising the American flag after the American victory at the Japanese island Iwo Jima. Movie Director Allan Dwan invited Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley to appear in the movie The Sands of Iwo Jima to recreate their iconic flag raising, making the three soldiers into celebrities. The Pentagon sent the three men on a nationwide tour as part of a fundraising effort which garnered $ 26.3 billion. But as Chris Hedges writes, “The publicity, along with the transformation from traumatized veterans to poster children for the war, left the three soldiers alienated, bitter, and depressed.” Hayes and Gagnon both suffered early deaths from alcoholism. For Hayes, this took the form of one final drinking binge which left him face down in his own blood and vomit near an abandoned hut close by to his home at Gila River Indian Reservation.
This isn’t the story that the public remembers about Iwo Jima. “The Veterans saw their wartime experience transformed into an illusion.” Writes Hedges. The Sands of Iwo Jima was “what the government and military wanted to promote. It worked because it had the power to simulate experience for most viewers who never at Iwo Jima, or in a war.”
Instead of being treated as human beings, the three men were made into idols to feed the public’s demand for a hero story. This is the type of thinking that we must resist on Memorial Day. Veteran and 2020 presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard volunteered to fight in Iraq when her unit was deployed in 2004. She was given the task of going through the list of casualties and injuries to tally up total losses. Her website reads:
“She was hit with the enduring pain and hardship of her brothers and sisters in uniform, and the stress and pressure on their families. She wondered if those who voted to send soldiers to Iraq really understood why they were there—if lawmakers and the President reflected daily on each death, each injury, and the immeasurably high cost of war.” click to tweet
While remembering those who have fallen, it is important to embrace an attitude of empathy and respect, but not idolization. We must remember the fallen warriors as the fellow human beings whom they are, not simply servicemen. The soldiers fought for a future of peace, not endless warfare. We need to realize that wars must someday end, and prepare to embrace reconciliation when that happens. If you adorn a red poppy flower today, adorn it with a spirit of love.