Memorial Day – the Mixed Bag

I have mixed thoughts about Memorial Day. First, it is often forgotten that it is about dead soldiers, not living ones. We have Veterans Day for the living ones, and Memorial Day for the ones who died in battle or at least in association with their military service (in many wars more died of disease than died of enemy action). 

Second, while there are many soldiers who enter the military for idealistic reasons, such as protecting their loved ones, in many of the wars I have known more entered because of a legal requirement (i.e. the draft) or because of misplaced idealism (the enemy was not really the threat that the government made it out to be). I have never heard a drill sergeant talk idealistically – you are in the army, you are trained to kill, and you will either do your job or else your sergeant will make you wish you had.
Third, while there are soldiers who die selflessly, usually trying to protect or save comrades in arms, the is not the situation for most soldiers. They went into the military to win a war, they were trained to destroy the enemy, and their goal in battle is to kill the enemy, not sacrifice themselves. They paid “the ultimate price” because the enemy was better or luckier at killing them than they were at killing the enemy (or perhaps because their comrades killed them accidentally, i.e. friendly fire). They are not martyrs, for they died while trying to kill others.
Fourth, the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that the size of one’s army, the quality of one’s armaments, or even whether or not one has an army at all make no difference. One’s righteousness does, one’s God does, but not one’s army. That theme runs through the Former and Latter Prophets, and it is also found in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament ends with a battle in which the only one described as armed is the King of Kings and his armament is speech, “the sword of his mouth.” So, the question arises, was the “sacrifice” (one’s death while trying to kill others, many of whom are trying to kill you for the same noble reasons for which you are trying to kill them, or one’s death protecting comrades who are trying to kill others, which can indeed be a sacrifice) really necessary?
Fifth, no war in the modern period and probably most wars in the medieval period fulfills the requirement of being a just war, so even if I believed in the just war criteria as worked out by Augustine, I would have to say that Christians involved in war are involved in an unjust exercise. The last wars that appeared to be just were WWII and possibly the Korean War, but WWII was hardly fought justly, since there were deliberate attempts to bring about mass civilian casualties. 
Sixth, Memorial Day does not memorialize those who died for refusing to fight, such as Mennonites who were killed in the USA (or else chased to Canada). They truly did make a sacrifice for conscience, for they were not trying to kill anyone, far from it. They were trying to serve the Lord Jesus.
Seventh, Memorial Day assumes that liberty (as defined by the USA) and freedom (as defined by the USA) are worth giving one’s life for. Within the context of the New Testament these are just other forms of the slavery in which the human race lives, not better not worse. I would contend that the USA is not founded upon anything like Christian principles, but upon genocide, nor was it founded for liberty in the sense that we use it today  (Plymouth Colony did want religious liberty, but only liberty for one particular religious group, which group was quite ready to kill other groups that encroached on its territory; Jamestown was a commercial venture, not about liberty at all; Georgia was a prison colony – Rhode Island and Maryland did seem to be tolerant). And Paul makes it clear in 1 Cor 7 that liberty is the political sense is something quite indifferent. 
I could go on. Let me sum up: On one hand I do honor those who voluntarily go to war based on their idealism of protecting and caring for others. I suspect that this idealism is misplaced, but it is sincere and at least some of these believe that they are serving God. I want to honor this desire to serve others even at the risk of one’s life. On the other hand, I believe that this picture of military service is idealistic, that it flies in the face of the realities of modern war, that it flies in the face of the reasons for modern war, and that it flies in the face of the fact that often war is fought for other reasons that the stated ones and that it kills far more innocents than “bad guys.” This would make the “sacrifice” a mistake at best.
Furthermore, since I have a freedom from Jesus that no one can take away, etc., the whole war venture is unnecessary, making gratitude difficult.
It is, as the title says, a mixed bag.
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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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