The Modern Meaning of Memorial Day

In the United States, since World War I, the last Monday in May, which was once known as “Decoration Day,” has been known as “Memorial Day.”

While many will be setting up their grills, weather-permitting, and fixing barbeque for friends and family alike, or gathering with friends at restaurants, or in whatever location, thankful for a long weekend and looking forward to the summer, numerous journalists will also be making commentary on what this day means. They will be talking about our soldiers, and whether one is for or against the two wars in which we are currently embroiled, they will be reminding us that those who have fought and died for us, our country, and our freedoms, should be foremost in our minds.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, for whether one is for war or against it, no one should take issue with our veterans themselves and only have inherent respect for an experience none could imagine unless in their shoes. My great-grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and WWI on the Western Front, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He is buried with others who have marked our country’s sacrifice in the midst of conflict.

But I would also like to make commentary on something that we should also be thinking about on this day. Let me amend that to say this day, and perhaps on every other, particularly for those of us who live in the West.

Earlier this month, on May 3rd, was World Press Freedom Day. It was a day that came and went to little fanfare. Even in this day when Iran is limiting or ceasing people’s access to Facebook during elections—where they should be able to communicate freely and exchange information about candidates—to the arrest and imprisonment of an Iranian-American journalist, Roxane Sabieri, who was accused of spying against Iran (who sang the American anthem to give herself strength during the ordeal), freedom of speech and freedom of the press have never been such important issues as they are now. Now, in this information age, this age of instant communication via varying means from SMS, email, Facebook and other social networking sites, IM, Skype, mobile phones and video conferencing, freedom of information has never been easier and more immediate. However, in most countries around the world, it is still limited.

On World Press Freedom Day, Freedom House released its assessment of world press freedom and found that it was on the decline. The current economic crisis has only caused further endangerment to media sustainability, not just here in the West, but to the developing world. And unlike in the West, and particularly in the United States, it is there, in the developing world, that such freedom is more consciously precious, because, indeed, it is often more rare.

As reported on in its reporting of Freedom House’s findings, this marked the "seventh straight year" of deterioration, even in such countries as were once deemed "free," now only to be considered "partly free" because of political pressures and the yoke of governments which do not want their citizens to know what is happening both within and without their borders. To know, as a recent CIMA/NED report also stated, that only 20% of the world’s countries have any recognizable freedom of the press, is something that most would respond to with a certain degree of disbelief. We are so used to the freedoms we have that sometimes it shocks us the extent to which others do not have them.

On this Memorial Day weekend, here are two ways in which we can truly commemorate this holiday outside of spending time with friends and family. We can appreciate our veterans, for whom this holiday is supposed to be a celebration, and we can also celebrate the freedoms former generations have fought for, from the Founders of the United States on. I’d like to suggest that this isn’t “hokey” or idealistic. It’s necessary.

We, more than anyone in the world, could perhaps be seen as taking our freedoms for granted. We’d rather be cynics and talk about how we as Americans are hated by many around the world, and how many problems that has caused. The election of Obama may have changed public opinion among many Americans—and the world—to a certain extent, but still, some, rather than withstand criticism, will still often mitigate any pride over our nationality, as though to beat others to the punch, while lambasting those fellow Americans whom we consider responsible for our mistakes before others do in the international sphere. We can’t pretend to be who we once were, some say—or perhaps never were, if we think about only the abuses and never those aspects of which we should be proud.

We do need to recognize our mistakes. But to insert some context, there has been no civilization, no nation, no group among humanity—with few if any exceptions--which has not perpetrated some atrocity, some war, some moment in history about which it could beat itself to a pulp if it chose to. That is not the point, and truly, that is, unfortunately, far too easy an exercise. We have made ourselves a massive target in the public sphere, and not just based on the natural tendencies toward picking at hegemony. In terms of mistakes, we sure as hell have made them, sometimes on a grand scale. But lest we forget, the point is in recognizing mistakes, but also embracing what is true and good as its natural counter when the time comes to do it. That includes holidays such as Memorial Day, when we should be remembering the best of who we are, as embodied in those who have been willing to lay their lives on the line for the freedoms we often do take for granted, even now, amidst the two wars we’re currently fighting.

In the case of our own country, the ideals which the Founders—as flawed as the Founders may have been personally in certain respects—still deserve absolute respect for having created something never before seen—the implementation of ideals during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, when Natural Law reigned supreme in human philosophy. And the ideals about which they argued, debated, and ultimately fought a Revolutionary War, and about which wars have been fought wars since, are ones of which we should be proud. This is true moreso because 80% of the rest of the world to this day does not have similar freedoms.

On April 4, 2009, I did a posting on the RdS/HMF blog about George Orwell's 1984. This is a book that is often taught in high school here in the United States, but in this post-Cold War age, sometimes the reasons for teaching it are less pronounced than they were when the Soviet Union still existed. (For anyone who was not live during or who does not remember the Cold War, and its relevance to 1984, see the film, The Lives of Others).

Among many of my friends who are teachers, they teach it in terms of the Dystopian novel—as it indeed is. When I taught, I had a whole Dystopian Unit, which included novels, essays, psychological tracts, journalism, and film—everything from 1984 to the graphic novel and film of V for Vendetta. The themes have continued to prove inordinately important, and moreso in this information age, when information is inherently ubiquitous, but as we have seen from recent events internationally (China, Sri Lanka, Sudan, etc.), still subject to propaganda.

As with much literature of any merit, its messages are told, like many of our best films, through the story of others. Such stories teach students that it’s usually the force in power that will try to convince everyone else that they are actually in or striving toward a utopia—which is their surreptitious psychological means of maintaining control--consigning everyone else, often by force, to the dystopian reality to which it appears only a few are awake. Those who are apparently awake usually form some kind of resistance or rebellion to awaken others to a previously unseen reality. Many others may be awake as well, but they’re not willing to risk torture, murder, imprisonment or other subjugation to stand before that dystopian power and challenge it. They must wait for others who have the courage of their convictions—and are willing to risk torture and death—to free them, should their plight for freedom succeed.

In preparing to write the RdS post, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I was watching the trailer for Michael Radford's film version of 1984, filmed in and around London during the very time period in which the novel originally took place. The control of media, wars fought about which the truth might never be known, terrorism being used to control the public and act as an excuse to limit rights and freedom of expression--"thought police" and those who commit "thought crime" when not bending to party line.

What becomes true as things swing more and more to the extreme ends of the spectrum, is that the higher the stakes get, the more issues are seen as black and white, right and wrong, to the detriment of dissent. Control is seen as a necessary means of mitigating whatever potential damage might come from someone actually having his or her own thought--and acting on it. It might not be good for the masses. It might prove to be subversive. Heaven forbid there be such a thing as freedom, for in 1984, "Big Brother" loves you, and only wants to protect you--not just from others, but from yourself. For that protection, one must therefore believe that 2+2=5. And one must believe that with all his or her heart. And one must not question when the clock also strikes "13."

Remember, from 1984, those famous slogans: 

"War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength."

In other countries, including in the remaining 80% of the world, including where violence is being perpetrated, any such questioning of the status quo, instead of debate and a subsequent vote, would come with instant arrest, and perhaps loss of life. There are places right now in the world, where "Big Brother" is a despotic government which will subjugate a population, rape and murder anyone who objects, or in the cases of cultural and ethnic violence, rape and murder any human being who has committed the objectionable act of even being alive. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are laughable pipe dreams. Basic human survival is at issue among millions—if not billions—of people. And those slogans from 1984, which we as Americans would inherently consider ridiculous, may as well actually be the slogans used by various regimes whose brutality is just simply the beginning of a true reign of terror.

Seeing the world as it is, including our own country, it is pretty apparent we do not live in a utopia. We even point out on a regular basis how far we are from it. But we here in the States also scream bloody murder should any of our rights be impeded. The Patriot Act caused endless debate—as it should have—and the rights of any who are subjugated are written about or covered by the media to the nth degree, even when we’re tired of hearing about it. Any conflict is inherently a story covered from every imaginable angle—and cynicism, as much as we may hate it at times, does have its uses—it assures that we aren’t swallowing whatever b.s. is being forced upon us by some faction in the government. There is always someone who will chortle, whether pundit or American citizen, who will shake his or her head after reading the paper or hearing something blatantly absurd on CNN, Fox News, or one of the other networks, and with typical impertinence toward “the system,” and ask, “Are you kidding?”

But in remembering the other 80 % of the world, we do take that right even to be impertinent for granted. We forget that such impertinence to whatever system in other parts of the world may be a death sentence.

And we need to remember something else. Whether we realize it or not, and however unpopular we are in certain parts of the world, there are those who still look to us as the ideal of human freedom. They look at our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, which even some of our own citizens have never read, and can talk about the Founders place in the Enlightenment and their use of Natural Law in the language of these documents. They even talk about the difficulties the Founders had grappling with these ideals during the difficulties of their time—including holding the natural rights of humanity aloft, while nearly tearing themselves apart over the issues of slavery. But they tout, sometimes more than we do, the fact that our Founders challenged themselves and future generations as a first step toward bridging the chasms between such philosophy—such higher ideals—and politics, in which those ideals were either subverted or upheld in practice. They did something with those ideals, and a new country was built in the wake of that willingness to create something that had never been known before, and based on ideals that would, perhaps, have otherwise only existed in the ether.

For those who do not have our freedoms, there is often the fragility of hope, and where it exists, the necessity of it to live another day, and the necessity to fight for its very protection. For those who have no hope, a single light shone in the darkness allows for even a single moment of belief, and the recognition that despite all the horrors of this increasingly complex world, any among the subjugated is inherently human, and there are others who give a damn about that very humanity, and the right not just to exist, but to live with that humanity intact, including rights which are—and should always be—inherent as human beings. And whether we realize it or not, they look to us, seeing where we started as a nation-state, what values we continue to uphold, and what we were willing to fight for. For we do need to realize, that when the time comes, there are things worth fighting for.

It is my hope that we will never forget, even when it is unpopular to recognize in casting a look askance at war—whatever war—which others fought for our right to be who we are. They fought for our right to disagree—to dissent—and to define ourselves, however we might, as human beings and as a nation. Even those areas in which we have not perfected our own freedoms, we at least have the ability to fight for them, knowing, in critical moments, woe betide the force that would ultimately keep us from them. At heart, we are the Americans everyone who believes in us believes us to be, for our history, and are forebears, however flawed, are a part of us whether we choose to recognize them or not.

So, as I eat my share of Memorial Day barbeque, I will be thinking about the following: my great-grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and WWI, buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and about my father, who was a veteran of Korea. I will be wearing a red poppy, and reading both “In Flanders Fields” and Siegfried Sasson’s poem, “Aftermath.” And as importantly, I’ll be damned proud to have been born in a country that while imperfect, still allows for views different from mine—and yours, whoever you may be reading this—thanking my father, great-grandfather, and others who put their lives on the line so that I might truly be one of the fortunate to know such freedoms—and hope and work toward the freedoms of others.

Again, this is not idealism. This is saying thank you.


K.J. Wetherholt is a former media executive and currently a writer, producer, and Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF). Her book, The Illumination: A Novel of the Great War (2006) will be released in paperback next year and is currently being packaged as a feature film out of Europe for future production.