How we view Memorial Day

Editor's note: Jason Baker is an occasional contributor to the Pantsuit Politics blog. As an Air Force Officer, he inserts his usual disclaimer here that he does not speak for the Air Force, or the Department of Defense and all views expressed are his own.

Without fail; every year on Facebook, Twitter, or in person; someone thanks me for my service on Memorial Day.  I hear radio commercials giving the “holiday weekend” weather and then reminding you to “thank a service member.” Today I was getting ready to write this article and when I typed in “Memorial Day” Google suggested finishing it with ‘sales’ and ‘deals.'

It would seem that a lot of misinterpretation, even confusion, surrounds this American holiday. This might have been most evident to me in the checkout line at the grocery store this weekend. The cashier saw my military ID while I was taking out my card to pay, and thanked me for my service. “I appreciate that” I said, giving my usual answer.

“It’s Veteran’s day this weekend, we’re having a big sale. No wait, Memorial Day? Which one is it?” she looked at the grocery bagger who nodded a look of having no idea.

“It’s Memorial Day” I interjected, calmly, knowing that my fiancé’ was giving me the ‘don’t make a stink’ eye.

“Yeah that’s it, well we’re having a big Memorial Day sale to honor the troops.” I nodded and finished paying, remarking to myself that those for whom Memorial Day honors will not be available to take advantage of the sale. I rolled the grocery cart silently out to my truck, and while we were putting the bags in my wife to be quietly said “she meant well, she was just confused.” She had seen this play out before and the frustration it causes me and other members of the military. For us, it’s not the “same thing.”

Once sorted out from Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day is often associated with ease by many, as the day to honor the men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice for this country. People conjure up images of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the World Wars, and probably Vietnam. These were the big American Wars fighting for freedom and American ideals. As President Ronald Reagan so elegantly said of our killed in action troops “their lives ended in places called Belleau Wood, the Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno, and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam.”

We are indeed indebted to these great Americans, and the places they went, the things they did, and the sacrifices they made.  What I believe we have begun to miss; however, is that their lives also ended (and continue to end) in places like Fallujah, Marjah, the Korengal Valley, and Marib Province.

When Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed in the Marib Province of Yemen earlier this year, most Americans had no idea we were even involved in any conflict in the small nation bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman. (With knowing where Saudi Arabia or Oman being a different, but related issue.) The Korengal Valley of Afghanistan saw 54 US casualties, with 45 more in the Helmand Province town of Marjah. Do Americans know what they are memorializing with these losses? Even the novice history buff could associate Reagan’s list of locations with the war, and the objective; but that second list I’m not so sure.

The issue is that we have grown numb to the casualties of war. After almost 16 years of constant fighting, people have lost track of what is what, or perhaps have grown weary of keeping track—and who could blame them? I fear; however, that there is a bigger issue: We have become a society that is afraid to apply any critique to these deaths, as though we are then not honoring the dead. We have become a society of supporting the troops and “thank you for your service” almost to the point of detriment. Good natured, well intentioned, Patriotic Americans are demonized for questioning what the sacrifice of a service member meant. 

In my mind; however; there is no better way to fully honor these men and women. We should tell their stories for sure, but we should also know what their sacrifice was for. The American people deserve to know the clear and specific objectives being sought after as citizen soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines put their lives on the line. It then goes without saying that the families of these men and women deserve to know what cause it was that their husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters gave up their lives for.

When we remember our war dead as simply “people who died fighting” we do their service a dis-service. Remembering where and why is just as important as who. For 241 years, brave men and women, called to service, have answered when their nation called and served with honor. It is we who must now honor them. Questioning the why when we do not understand; is exactly as important as embracing it when we do.

This Memorial Day, when you want to thank a service member the day honors, just look for the flags in a local cemetery. Those are the people we honor this day.