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Observing Memorial Day through the eyes of a veteran

Every year, Memorial Day becomes less and less of a national holiday


In Section 60, where many of the soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, Captain James Leggett, of Alexandria, Va., with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, or “Old Guard,” places flags before each grave in preparation for Memorial Day, during the annual “Flags-In” at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Thursday, May 24, 2012.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

By JE McCollough
Military1 Columnist

“America has fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without a draft and the burden of combat has fallen on a small percentage of Americans. It’s not easy for the public to understand why there are men who volunteer to go to war.”

Every year, Memorial Day becomes less and less of a national holiday.

I don’t think this act is intentional, either on the part of the military or from the civilian side. But the fact is that the military/civilian divide exists strongly in the current American era as a direct result of the all-volunteer military. After the Vietnam War, America decided to end the draft and rely solely on volunteers. Professionals. A select few. Instead of the entire nation going to war, only about one percent had to fight.

This was a good thing, right?

In many ways, absolutely. There are a lot of people who have no business being in the military. In fact, an entire genre of comedies was based on that ‘fish-out-of-water’ stereotype, from MASH to Stripes. If you wonder where all the military-themed comedies have gone, in my opinion it’s because there’s not much funny to be mined from professionals doing a tough job.

But since the American military has become professionalized, our country has developed a deep divide between the protected and the protectors. This is the price of an all-volunteer, professional military. A warrior class was created; an elite minority separated from the rest of the population by their willingness to fight and die for the majority.

On Memorial Day, the nation’s citizens are supposed to remember and honor those who have fallen protecting the nation. In the past this was an obvious, personal undertaking. The fallen of America’s past wars consisted of everyone’s brothers, husbands, sons, and fathers.

But without everyone contributing to the sacrifice, the ‘remembering’ has become impersonal, even abstract, for all but the handful of professionals and their families. In the past, graveyards on Memorial Day became the locations of family reunions, as relatives came together to honor and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice from that family.

This is no longer the case.

No one on the civilian side, from what I can tell, is interested in changing things and there’s nothing I can think of that the military could do to impact the perceptions of the majority of Americans who never served.

It seems American civilians view service members and veterans in one of two ways. Some put us on a pedestal, viewing us all as ‘heroes’ and placing impossibly high expectations on our shoulders, while others seem to be harboring resentment against those citizens who chose to serve. We see the latter everywhere from the gutter of the internet where trolls spout some version of ‘fuck the military,’ to academia where professed intellectuals seek to undermine military service by portraying it as ‘nothing special.’

For both groups, thinking of Memorial Day as a day to remember those who died in service to the United States of America is meaningless; they have no personal stake in it. At best the day is an intellectual exercise of patriotic affirmation, at worst it’s just another day off from work.

And you know what? I’m fine with things as they are now.

Civilians can keep their BBQs for their pseudo-Memorial Day. The fallen are ours, not the nation’s, and they are ours to remember.

Civilians can have Veteran’s Day. They can shake a vet’s hand and say ‘thank you for your service’ if it makes them feel like they contributed, or they can post rants against veterans getting a free meal at Applebee’s.

Memorial Day is ours.

Our fallen are ours to remember.

For those who have served and our families, it is personal, without abstraction. The dead we remember as our brothers and sisters.

This article was originally published in 2017.