Memorial Day Thoughts

May 30, 2016

It’s Memorial Day. Back in the day Memorial Day fell on May 30, always. That Memorial Day falls on May 30 in 2016 means, simply, that the last Monday in May in 2016 is the 30th day of the month.

The date change resulted from the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, a President Lyndon Johnson* / Congress production which moved certain holidays to a fixed Monday, to provide for more three-day weekends. As a by-product, we trivialized a day which, since 1868, has been set aside to honor those who died while serving us. Now, Memorial Day represents the left bookend of summer—Labor Day is on the right—and brings with it all of the sales and smarm America cannot do without. (It also gets confused with Veteran’s Day, in that we all honor those who served, living or dead. How, when you get together for the family barbecue, can you ignore your father, uncle, or brother who served and is still with us?)

In a much deeper way, disconnected from the date on which we celebrate our dead servicemen and women, we have lessened the significance of service to our country. We have done so by eliminating the draft and, before, by creating exemptions which allowed many to avoid service.

Before Vietnam, every abled-bodied young man went to war. History is replete with stories of young men who lied about their age or health to enlist. Plenty of older men not obligated to serve also joined up. Service was a given, and an honorable act.

Vietnam changed all of that. Between draft dodgers and those who—honestly or otherwise—took advantage of exemptions, the service burden fell disproportionately on those who were less advantaged. Once again, President Nixon and Congress stepped in it, this time to do away with the draft. (President Nixon served in the South Pacific in World War II, and many in Congress in 1973 were WWII vets.)

To be sure, there was and is a case to be made for an all-volunteer fighting force. Professionalizing anything makes sense. Unfortunately, by leaving service to volunteers, we have lost our communal culture. We have turned the relationship between our society and our soldiers into something akin to the relationship we may have with the office janitor, the trash collector, or the auto mechanic.

The Carsey Institute published Rural Soldiers Continue to Account for a Disproportionately High Share of U.S. Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan by William O’Hare and Bill Bishop in 2007. “Disproportionately” means about 50% higher. According to the authors, the higher rate correlates with higher enlistment rates in rural areas, and fewer job opportunities.

So, now, when our leaders want a war, we let the hired help fight for us. (Our leaders, by the way, are not poor people from rural areas, generally, and not those whose children are in the military.) Most of us know almost no one in the military. We don’t know people whose children are fighting and dying, either. They come from other places and are, too often, nameless and faceless.

The village idiot may be our next leader. (I think my appellation is generous, frankly.) His campaign theme is Make America Great Again. His plans, which change by the moment (and reflect a shocking degree of ignorance and disinterest), will likely bring us to a swift and sad ending. If he understood anything at all about this country, and really wanted to improve our collective lot, he’d get the fact that greatness grew out of that communal culture, in which everyone did his or her part for the betterment of all.

I am not advocating for mandatory military service for everyone. We do not need everyone. But there are many ways to serve, and we do need so much in this country. Mandatory service for all disadvantages no one, and offers our nation and our young people many advantages. Sadly, the concept gets no air time, anywhere!

G-d bless America and those among us whose sons and daughters, father and mothers, and brothers and sisters lost their opportunities for bright futures in service to our nation.

*Earlier, the post attributed the date change to President Richard Nixon. Thanks to Robert Fleming for indirectly noting the error.

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