Monday, May 31, 2010

In Memory

It's Memorial Day in the US: unofficially the (non-astronomical) start of summer and officially a day to remember US soldiers who have died in wars.

My family is swarming with active and retired soldiers and sailors, some of whom have spent substantial time in war zones, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, and several of my friends are married to military personnel. I have also had quite a few soldier-students in my classes in recent years. I can spend Memorial Day being grateful that not one has been lost.

I once asked an uncle, a retired Marine, what he thought about remembering people other than soldiers on Memorial Day. That is, people who have died in war -- any people and any war -- or Americans who have died in other service to the country. What about policemen and firemen? What about children in war zones? No, he did not think that was appropriate. Only US military personnel should be considered. That is what the holiday is for and it does soldiers a dishonor to include others.

I disagree. The only people I personally have known who died in war were those caught in the fighting in a certain troubled African country where I lived for a time as a child. These were my friends and neighbors. I am not in any danger of forgetting them, and I am not dishonoring anyone else by remembering them today of all days.

For many people this day is just a holiday, totally detached from its original intent. I must admit that for me it is mostly just part of a 3-day weekend as well. My daughter doesn't have school, so we sleep in a bit, hang around, admire the cats, maybe bake something strange but festive, and then I go to campus to work in my nice quiet office for a while. Maybe I will even clean a particularly cluttered corner of my office; something I've been meaning to do since last summer, or maybe the one before that.

But it is Memorial Day, a day for memories of family, friends, soldiers, sailors -- even people we never met but who are somehow important to us.

If you take time on this Memorial Day to remember important people in your life other than close family members or friends, how many of these people were your teachers, colleagues, mentors, or students?

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your uncle was correct. The holiday is not about remembering victims of war. It is for memorializing the valor of those who fought to keep us free. It was first observed by freed slaves honoring fallen Union soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War.

female Science Professor said...

I know what the holiday is officially supposed to be, but I don't agree that it can't personally for other remembering.

Anonymous said...

heroes are worth remembering and so are the victims. Without victims there are no need for heroes and without victims no heroes could be born. Therefore, memorial day should be for both those who have been lost in the midst of battle and for those who have been lost for fighting in the battle. I think that's probably why we unofficially know what this holiday is for but officially it is just a bank holiday here in the UK...not out of disrespect but rather to allow those who want to remember the freedom to do so without forcing it on anyone else...and THAT would have been the biggest disrespect

Anonymous said...

Since victims of war have no holiday to honor their sacrifice, it seems reasonable to piggyback on Memorial day. Not only victims, either - civilians have contributed greatly to war efforts either directly or indirectly and deserve to be recognized even if they aren't technically in the military.

Anonymous said...

When I am in a pensive mood, inspired by holidays or not, I think about people who have shaped my life (either in personal detail or in regards to the state of the country as a whole, either dead or alive, etc.). As I have recently met some servicemen, I may think about them and what they have given up more than I usually would. However (and to answer your question), in other years I have certainly reflected on the role of a few professors and students that made a significant mark on my life.

I think this holiday has gone somewhat the way of Christmas - the original meaning has been almost entirely lost to the general public, and memorial day has mostly just become a day of BBQs. So kudos to you, FSP, for spending time remembering, in any capacity.

Anonymous said...

I actually like your thoughts.. my family doesn't have a strong history of military service (some in WWII, but not since), so I think the holiday has always been a bit disconnected from my reality. However, a lot of other people 'serve' our country - as you said, police, firefighters, teachers, etc. So, remembering those who fought to preserve our country and those who daily serve to improve our country seems appropriate to me.

Anonymous said...

The better solution would be to have a separate national holiday for civilian casualties of war. Because combining them in with our fallen troops doesn't really do them justice either.

Anonymous said...

Anonimous at 12:24: This is an academic science blog. If you need to tell people what to think you should find some religious nut-wing blog. You'll find people willing to listen there.

FSP, I find it admirable that you take time on this long weekend to remember and to talk about what Memorial Day means to you. Most people just think of it as an opportunity for barbecuing and taking in an inordinate amount of beer. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those activities.

Alex said...

An act of Congress doesn't mean that individuals can't honor whoever they want to honor.

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

@Alex:

Word.

lauren said...

"[Memorial Day] is for memorializing the valor of those who fought to keep us free."

...then I'm honoring suffragette Emily Davidson, and activist Esther Chavez.

Anonymous said...

If the intent of Memorial Day was to remember our soldiers, then what is Veteran's Day for? I say remember whomever you want to remember or just have a BBQ if that is all you are up for.

Kevin said...

All I've thought about today is the R01 deadline on June 5. I've spent over 30 hours this weekend trying to get a grant proposal together.

(Oh, and I mowed my front lawn which had gotten waist-high, because I've been working 7 days a week a quarter.)

Anonymous said...

anon @ 5:53 -

Veterans Day is to honor living veterans. Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives.

It is a fine tribute to the sacrifice they made, that you are able to freely display your ignorance on this blog.

Anonymous said...

A nitpick:

"Soldiers" means Army and only Army, at least in the US. Navy, Air Force, and Marines are sailors, airmen, and Marines, respectively (I think Coast Guard are "sailors" or "guardsmen"). So Memorial Day is meant to remember servicemembers, not just soldiers (or soldiers and sailors, for that matter).

I don't mean to take away from your post! I just know that a lot of people don't know this bit of terminology.

Sara said...

I think it's always valuable to take the time to think through what a holiday is for and then make your decision about how to spend it deliberately.

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who took the same oath of service as everyone in all the military branches, I choose to honor all current and returned PCVs on Veteran's day. I have found, when I ask those in the military how they feel about this, that it makes sense to them too. It's a different kind of service, but one they felt was valuable and with the same intention.

I had friends end up with life-altering injuries (including amputations) during their Peace Corps service, but no one I know actually died during service (though I know there are PCVs every year that do), so it has not been on my mind in the same way during Memorial Day. Thanks for the discussion.

Anonymous said...

For those who feel that Memorial Day must only be celebrated in its original intent, you might be interested to know that it was actually started by Southern women after the end of the Civil War to memorialize fallen Confederate soldiers (http://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2008a/080520JanneyMemorial.html).
My own belief is that Memorial Day is a fitting time to commemorate those who are no longer with us - soldier or not, known to us or not.