Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day, Motherland and Blood Sacrifice

It's Memorial Day here in the United States, and I find myself, once again and as usual, deeply ambivalent.

courtesy of Sam Stoner, via flickrAs a Pagan pacifist, as a peace-making Druid, I know that I am not naturally inclined to celebrate holidays of militarism, patriotism and nationalism. This is simple and straight-forward. I find it easier to celebrate the values commemorated on Martin Luther King Day — those of social justice and the sentiments of equality and community, as well as the grief of injustice and of dreams mown down by hate and violence — than the adolescent indulgence in triumphant glorying and loud reveling that occurs each July on Independence Day. Yet unlike these others, Memorial Day leaves me feeling disconcerted and conflicted. All through this holiday weekend, I have read passing comments and thoughtful reflections alike on the True Meaning of Memorial Day, all repeating and revolving around this singular, pervasive notion: that we must "honor the memory of the soldiers who fought and died for us." Honor is such a powerful word, and death such a vital reality. But there is a kind of emptiness, a hollowness echoing within that expression, one that takes for granted what our relationship is to the dead, what our responsibilities are to the living, what honor and memory truly look like, how they function, what they require of us.

There is a part of me that hears this edict, this charge to honor our dead soldiers, and responds with bewilderment and uncertainty. What could this statement possibly mean? What does it mean to honor these dead, and how do we do it? How do we demonstrate or act on this honoring and remembering? Far from rejecting the notion of such honor as mere misdirected nationalist pride or wrong-headed militaristic chauvinism, it seems obvious to me that something else is going on here, something similar to — and yet so different from — the process of grieving. But when it comes to questions of how to respond to the cultural demand to "honor the soldiers who died for you," I find that the problem is not so much that I do not want to comply, but that I literally do not know how. Assuming, of course, that our honor and memory should take a form other than silent complicity in the continuing violence and militarism of our government — what should my honor look like?

More than anything else, I have come to understand Memorial Day as a day about families, shattered or wounded by loss, about children whose fathers never made it home from the front lines, and most poignantly, about mothers still mourning the death of their children. Those who would rage at me for my ambivalence (some would say cold-heartedness and ingratitude, though they would be wrong) do so, I believe, not really for the sake of the dead, who are by now beyond caring, but for the mothers whose hearts have been broken, whose tears might not even yet be dry on their cheeks, but who have rallied their strength, their courage and even their grief in order to "soldier on" here among the rolling hills and fecund valleys of the safe-guarded homeland, the soft and self-giving heartland that opens itself to sacrifice for the sake of life. It may be the soldiers who die, but it is inevitably their mothers, and their families, who survive to suffer and grieve, and yet sustain and carry on.

It is no coincidence, I think, that our holidays of war and violence — Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veteran's Day — occur during the lush, fertile months of the year, during seasons of growth, warmth and sunlight, culminating with fruition and harvest. At the height of summer, we see how death and sacrifice lay just under the surface of thriving, squirming life.[*] It is during this time of the year that we celebrate and honor (in repetitive, often shallow or thoughtless ways) the deaths of "service men and women," who no doubt themselves played no small part in bringing about the deaths of uncounted and unremembered others while they lived. In this way, we forge and reinforce this half-unconscious connection between the violence of war and death, and the prosperity and nurturing lushness of the protected heartland. This is the archetype of the noble, grieving mother, who forever gives freely of herself so that others may prosper: it is she who gives life to the son, though he will grow up to break her heart and abandon her loving arms to go off to war; it is she who becomes the first teacher of this son, showing him what strength and courage look like through her unending patience and unconditional support; it is she who shares the risks of war and willingly accepts the burden of living with the wound that loss and death will surely leave; she who must, in the end, watch her children die even as, in her life-bearing role, she gives birth to new children and new possibilities for the future. She is, in short, the archetype of the motherland. She is the very thing, we are told, that our soldiers fight and die for. And she is us.

courtesy of onkel_wart (off/line), via flickrI honor the land in which and from which I was born, a land that I love deeply. I witness each spring, summer and autumn the dance of death and life taking place, rising up from the moist decay of mud and earth, shining through every bug-bitten leaf. I understand both intellectually and palpably, with my whole body, this relationship between the destructive and the progenitive, and the fearlessness it demands. I know that it is important to honor the strength and courage of the archetypal Great Mother, embodied in the life-sustaining and deeply vulnerable earth. It is important to celebrate our own capacity to withstand death, to bear witness to life as much as to bravely bear life itself. It is important to acknowledge our potential for destructive acts, to remember the real eventuality of our own destruction, and to engage with these possibilities in ways that render them creative, generative and meaningful. And it is important — by the gods is it important! — to grieve.

So many of these themes express themselves in Memorial Day and yet, as I said before, what we experience now is also tragically unlike true grief, honor and memory. What begins as a natural urge to honor and adore the heartland, the motherland of our birth and living, has become increasingly distorted, usurped in the name of the fatherland, the patriarchal nation, the government and the military. What we elevate and honor now is a kind of pathological disjoint that keeps us safe and cut-off from the violence occurring overseas. It is based not on the fearlessness of self-giving life, but on the paranoia and xenophobia of manipulative isolation and imperial bullying, the desperation to escape or postpone death at any price. We have substituted courageous living once again for the disturbing practice of blood sacrifice.

Through our praise and support, hardly less than compulsory in today's political climate, we raise our military troops and armed forces to the role of temporary kings, investing them with idealized visions of strength, nobility and goodwill that they often fall short of truly possessing (those who succeed in embodying these projections become "real men" who are Army Strong™, while those who fail suffer debilitating stress and shame, leading to self-destructive behaviors, even suicide). We send these soldiers off to kill and be killed in order to secure our own stagnant luxury; through our complicity and patriotic rallying cries, we slaughter and dismember those very "service members" upon whom we have lavished such fantasies and flattery. And when they return to us, we consume them, their images, their trophies and memorials of war. For good measure, we slaughter millions of cattle and pigs and throw their flesh onto the fire.

And while the cyclical nature of the seasons, the dance of life and death in nature, is one that brings with it the promise of new possibilities to experience love, gratitude and beauty even in the depths of difficulty, darkness and pain — the repetitive blood sacrifice of militarism and modern warfare promises little more than a nightmarish future of escalating violence. The debt owed to those sacrificial victims grows ever greater, the security for which they died ever more tenuous, and the past becomes bloated and heavy with abuse, denial and regret. How can we possibly heal our wounds and overcome our sense of loss — how can we mourn openly and honestly — in such a distorted, unhealthy and unending cultural frenzy? How can anything grow in a field so thoroughly soaked with blood?

And so, Memorial Day leaves me with deep feelings of ambivalence, frustration, and grief. The weather today has shifted through moments of heat and intense sunlight, and unexpected hours of rumbling, trembling heavens piled high with thunderclouds letting loose their torrents. It is, perhaps, a good time to mention, and a serviceable transition into, the upcoming Pagan Values Month, which begins tomorrow. As part of this June's coordinated conversation in the blogosphere, I hope to write more in this blog about pacifism and peace-making as a political philosophy and a spiritual discipline. I hope you will join me. Until then, be blessed, readers, and spend a little more time in the loveliness and sun, for me.

[*] Meanwhile, it is during the cold days of winter, those long hours of darkness during which we huddle together around flickering fires, our vulnerable skin bundled against exposure, that we remember and celebrate the values of peace and fellowship. On the darkest night, we honor the rebirth of light and the ideals of love and peace that will carry us through to spring. It is when we are most directly and viscerally confronted with the darkness and the silence and the cold of deep winter that we understand the vitality and necessity of peace, and we gather together, stringing up lights of our own to burn fiercely and lovingly in the night.


  1. Like it or not, believe in it or not, war and sometimes violence is part of daily life. Indeed I think there is something to be learned from the struggle of life. Violence, and the willingness to inflict harm in the defense of yourself, your loved ones and the ideals you care about are just part of life.

    Memorial day is about remembering those that have died for their country so that you have a free country to philosophize about things like pacifiism and choose your own religion.

    Without soldiers to defend our freedoms you likely would be pondering a very different subject like what you do and don't like about your state-selected religion or your state-selected job.

    Realize the irony that it's the very sacrifices you're not quite sure how to honor that provide you the opportunity to ponder said irony.

  2. The ability to ponder and contemplate our condition as human animals is inherent, and not something that can be taken away or won by force. We have evidence of contemplation prevailing in every single culture that has ever existed, regardless of government or cultural pressure. Indeed, some of the most powerful writings, philosophies and poetry have come from people while they were imprisoned, oppressed or otherwise robbed of government privilege and liberty.

    Our government knows this, which is why it has long since moved past overt oppression of its own citizens; while you cannot stop people from thinking through force, you can very well keep them from openly challenging you when you buy them off, make them comfortable and then insist it is their complicity which has secured that comfort and only their silence which can buy a few more years of luxury. The philosopher Hobbes wrote about this — the use of fear and psychological manipulation rather than physical force in order to control a population — and it is his philosophy that was very deliberately incorporated quite early on into the workings of our own government, along with thinkers like Locke.

    Struggle and death are a part of daily life, and it is our duty to honor these things. But we cannot honor them with escalating bloodshed and violence, especially not violence that is directed against the unseen Other. Once a year we claim to honor our fallen soldiers, and yet we do not even have the decency to witness their deaths, we do not even have access to images of their coffins returning home from these foreign wars. Each Memorial Day, the reality of their deaths is glossed over, instead taking the beautiful form of their clean, pale gravestones covered in garlands of flowers. This is not honor — this is little more than a comforting lie.

    I think our world would be better off if, instead of paying lip-service to honor, we embodied it in our every day lives. If we faced the risk of death and the struggle against tyranny here at home, instead of projecting all evil onto others "over there" and then sending someone else off to die in aggressive foreign wars on our behalf.

  3. One of the things I like to keep in mind is that Memorial Day is about honoring the dead who died in military service to their country. Second, following upon that, it is an affirmation of the choice to serve in the military and being willing to die for your country. Full stop.

    Regardless of the nature of the war in which a soldier died, Memorial Day upholds the virtue in choosing to serve one's country in this manner.

    Like any virtue, the soldier's can be abused--but the virtue remains. The holiday should be focused firmly on the virtue, not its misuses.

    Too much politicizing, left or right, of that on Memorial Day gets in the way.

    It's good, for one day, to get as clear a sense of the goodness of the soldier's choice as possible, so that the next day, and the next, one's attitude toward military policy is sharpened by a keen sense of its value.

    That's hardly a blanket endorsement of military action--a keener sense of its value is accompanied by a keener sense of how that value can be squandered and diminished by poor or excessive use of it.

    Too often, neither the right nor the left appreciates that value, using the image of the dead soldier to score points.

    And, yes, the U.S. could definitely afford to think about other expressions of civic virtue--it would be nice, for example, to see some conscious acknowledgment of the role of the diplomat, the statesman, in securing the safety of the nation.

    The best and most enduring treaties, after all, are not secured at gunpoint, even when the danger of warfare provides a spur to their adoption.

    Similarly, as you say, Ali, the freedom to endorse pacifism doesn't depend exclusively on soldiers, but on a whole network of people who are living within the country.

    It depends on judges, police officers, neighbors, lawyers, legislators, and friends, each with their own forms of civic virtue which need to be supported and sustained .

    Still, why not give the dead soldiers their day, honor the purest aspect of their choice? Even when it isn't a choice you always endorse--especially when it's not a choice you easily endorse. Because then it takes you out of your own presuppositions* and toward an appreciation of the humanity of the decision to be a soldier.

    *by this, especially, I mean your portrayal of the soldier as exploited sacrificial victim and the negation of celebration with tear-filled grief (yes, we need to grieve, but that often entails the celebration of their lives, including their military service).

  4. Ian, Thank you very much for your comment. Though there are some things that I disagree with in what you say, what you have written is clearly thoughtful and articulate, and it's given me much to contemplate.

    It is, I admit, hard for me to think of the modern soldier as anything more than a duped "sacrificial victim," keeping in mind of course that all sacrificial victims have always been deeply and complexly human in their own right. The mechanizations of power and propaganda in this country are strong. The loudest voices urging a "career" in the armed forces — targeted primarily, as is clear from the nature of their television commercials and recruiting websites, at lower and working class young people with few other education and career options — often place disproportionate emphasis on how it will benefit one's job prospects and provide education and practical skills training, how it elevates the soldier to the role of world-hero or even savior (the U.S. Navy's current slogan is "A Global Force for Good," taking for granted the question of whether or not our military should even aspire to be a "global force" and what implications such an aspiration might have), and most tellingly, how becoming a service member has become increasingly "safe," and even kind of fun, due to our modern technologies and impressive weaponry and machinery, some of which can even take the place of the soldier himself on the front lines. Much of this strikes me as disturbingly similar to the promises of afterlife glory and this-world praise reflected in, for instance, the human sacrifice culture of the ancient Aztecs. And the rate at which our soldiers are dying (far outstripped by the pace at which they are becoming increasingly efficient at killing) is reminiscent of the collapsing Aztec empire, which sacrificed hundreds, even thousands of victims, in attempts to appease the gods and slow the inevitable.


  5. ...

    Which brings me to the crux of my disagreement with your view of Memorial Day, I think: does a choice made in the hope of being honorable render that choice (and its subsequent actions) truly honorable? Can we assume that someone's good intentions are sufficient to make their choice a "good" one? This is the problem with making, as you put it, a "full stop." I do not see how we can discuss issues of honor and memory if we do not place them in a context which gives such notions meaning. It may be true that these soldiers chose to join up because they believed it was honorable and noble; if they believed this because we continue to tell them this is so, haven't we merely created a vacuum of meaningless and redundant rhetoric? What is it, other than our assurances, that make this choice an honorable one? Since at least the Vietnam War, there has been no pretense that our military and armed forces are anything but a global police presence enforcing our economic and political interests across the world. While people on both the "left" and the "right" continue to argue about the military as a tool, quibbling over how and when it should be applied to best effect, there are those of us who do not take either side and believe, instead, that an institution of state-sponsored, organized, large-scale violence cannot ever be honorable, nor put to "good" use.

    Still, your point is one that has given me pause. It is important, I believe, to spend time contemplating and honoring these soldiers' ability to make choices, and to acknowledge the good intentions behind that choice. Such soldiers are not mere pawns, despite how they are treated and portrayed. But with this focus, I think it is equally important that we not glorify choice alone but that, with it, we acknowledge the personal responsibility (and response-ability) that these soldiers also had, and that we too have. And I believe part of that responsibility is to resist the continued glorification of the role of soldier as one of inherent nobility, and to remind others, loudly if necessary (and through grief, if sometimes appropriate), that our young people should not have to go off to kill and be killed in order to feel valued and honored in our society.

  6. Meh. You celebrate the freedoms given you by war. Were it not for those things, you would not have your grassy meadows or your ability to go here and there as you please.

    Memorial Day and Independence Day should be the highlight of any Pagan's yearly calendar, as you have the freedom do practice and do what and as you wish; the price was paid with blood, whether you like it or not.

  7. Feel free to delete that. I'm not here to cause an argument. I won't be coming 'round anymore, but it just hit me that there's a lot of things that we enjoy in this country, and it's because of our history that we have those things. That history involves war. People gave their lives to give us religious freedom, and the abolition of slavery. We should be thankful that those things happened and grateful to those that gave their lives.

    I guess that's what I'm trying to say. I ain't as deep as you guys, heh.

  8. Anonymous, I'm sorry you won't be coming around anymore - I wouldn't say we're "deep" around here, but in my experience reading things I disagree with has always helped me "deepen" my own opinions, and I'm happy to do the same for you. :)

    As far as our freedoms - though they downplay it in high school history class, most of our "freedoms" that folks claim were secured by war actually came about through protests and resistance by civilians within our own country. The Women's and Civil Rights movement, during which many men and women were killed as they protested sometimes quite peacefully (though sometimes not), are only the most recent examples. Before that, you had Labor and Workers Unions organizing and fighting to secure the right to overtime pay, child labor laws, etc. Here in Pittsburgh, a famous show-down occurred right on the river, where several business owners called in the national guard and ended up killing about thirty (if I recall correctly) civilian protesters.

    The freedoms we enjoy in this country were fought for and secured by people in this country, and I'm with Ani DiFranco when she says, "I love my country, by which I mean I am indebted, joyfully, to all the people throughout its history who have fought the government to make right." Fighting the oppressions of an uncaring and manipulative government was the ideal and the mythology this country was founded on, and it is those sacrifices, which people continue to make even to this day, that I honor.

  9. Mr. Free Radical6/03/2010 9:26 AM

    Sorry to chime in, I always tell myself I shouldn't, but I'm absolutely amazed to see so many self-described "Pagans" defending the rights of the state and the willing executioners of that state. I am in agreement on one thing: we should start to become much more aware of how we reached the point we have, becoming more aware of our "history." But by no means does that call for "honoring" that history, especially in the case of the US, a country with perhaps the worst record of atrocities, known and unknown, in the modern world. As Nietzsche once pointed out, "If a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed - that is the law." And he goes on to point out that in order to form a "memory," we must pay for that memory with incredible amounts of blood and torture and destruction. Notice how I didn't use the word violence as well, particularly because I think that word is bastardized to no end these days. Now, somewhere in your lives, most of you have decided to let the "goodness" of "honoring" that "blood sacrifice" go unchecked. But why? Why should we "honor" or respect anyone's choice or action that involves forming and shaping another person or group of people into what they want them to be while denying those folks the right to choose for themselves? Soldiers, for the most part (with socio-political considerations aside), are willing participants in the slaughter and oppression of people within and especially those outside the system of government in power. They are literally the strong force that keeps the few in power that control and manipulate the many, allowing them to do whatever they want really. And while we shouldn't go so far as to demonize the "soldiers," we must by no means deny them the responsibility of accepting the consequences of their choice to be a "soldier." While it is quite possible to have a "good" "soldier," meaning a good person who is a "soldier," these people must still be held accountable for making a choice to support a system that continuously abuses power-over and is corrupt almost all the way through. Because whether or not those "good" "soldiers" participate in "bad" actions directly, the majority of the actions in the military all lead to the overwhelming abuse of another group of people somewhere in the world.

    So yes, while the "price" of many things, particularly the state of our world as it is now, was paid for in blood, keep in mind that it was not only OUR "soldier's" who paid with that blood....add to it the countless numbers of children, men, and women who forcibly removed from this world because of a few other people's desire to control a piece of land, or gain access to a little bit more "wealth." And what about the "soldier" on the other side of the fence, staring back over at your cherished idea of a "soldier." What of him? Shouldn't he be "honored" too? Just think, without that "soldier" your "soldier" wouldn't have even had the chance to be "heroic." So, if a person really wants to die for anything, let alone a "country," then go ahead, be my guest. Don't expect me or anyone else, though, to respect that choice (just as I have no respect for martyr's who die for their chosen God-god-goddess of the week). I especially don't respect anyone who chooses to take shit loads of people out with them along their way to their own death. And in no way am I naive, yes naive, enough to believe that their choices to do whatever provides me with my "right to freedom" or my "right to be." While their choices and actions may have provided a certain shape and stink to this world that I cannot get away from, that does not mean anything in the way of freedom or my right to be.

  10. Ali - thank you for your posts. I had similar misgivings and ruminations about this Memorial Day holiday. It was heartening to see those issues echoed in your pages, and examined and confronted by you, and by those who don't quite understand. The dialog is important but it does make me uncomfortable (and is telling) that there is no room for some to honor a different view. I honor you for the courage to speak your heart, and for doing so with such balance and compassion. It feels very lonely out here some times, and your posts are a balm for my heart. Blessings to you.

  11. Madrigal,

    Today your comment was a balm for my own heart, so thank you for that. Too often I know I allow myself to get dragged into angry arguments about these issues (this afternoon being one of those occasions, on another blog) — I'm so grateful that the dialogue in this blog has remained as open and contemplative as it has, and for that I know I have my readers to thank as much as anything I've done. :) So thank you, and all those other folks out there who might not be commenting but are reading along, and pondering, and struggling, and persevering nonetheless. :)