Memorial Day in the United States is beloved among Americans as the holiday that marks the unofficial start of summer. It’s a day for picnics, barbecues, family outings, and the opening of numerous neighborhood swimming pools. In Washington this year, it’s particularly welcome – after a May that was record-breaking for all the wrong reasons (setting new records for consecutive rainy days, with temperatures far below average). Hooray – we are finally enjoying warm and mostly dry weather!
As is my long-standing practice, I fly the American flag on Memorial Day. In recent years, I even trekked downtown to watch the remarkable spectacle of the countless riders of Harley Davidsons gathered from across the nation, roaring past in memory of those lost or left behind in America’s wars. Most of these riders are of my own generation – the Vietnam War generation – and there is something particularly poignant and oddly moving about these aged and largely ignored veterans of the war that did not go well, asserting their dignity and patriotism amid the mass of rumbling, powerful steel machines.
But then this year The Donald co-opted the riders of Rolling Thunder, at their invitation. What I once viewed as a dignified if unusual procession of honor and commitment is now, for me, reduced to merely a showy prop in the service of an ignorant, dangerous demagogue. I will go no more to Rolling Thunder.
Despite Mr. Trump’s latest acquisition (Rolling Thunder), patriotism still has a firm grip on me. Perhaps it’s due to having grown up in the U.S. Marine Corps – my grandfather Joseph was a general, my dad Ray was a colonel, my younger brother Ken a Marine tank officer. And since the Marines are part of the Navy Department, I’ll give due Semper Fidelis respect to my next older brother George, a retiree after 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. I was brought up to respect the service – and the sacrifice – of America’s women and men in uniform. And today – Memorial Day – is first and foremost about those who have won the peace for our country, which even I – a Quaker – can get behind.
And I do.
Still, winning the peace is a larger and more complicated effort than winning wars. And while nothing can compare to the remarkable courage and tenacity of those who have adopted the Warrior’s Code and risked their lives to overcome a violent adversary – as my father did time and again in the Pacific campaign in World War 2 – Memorial Day is large enough to celebrate all of America’s peacemakers.
Yet we don’t.
In fact we really don’t talk about peace or peacemakers on Memorial Day. It isn’t like America has a shortage of peacemakers, or that it is unpatriotic to cherish peace. Many Americans have labored hard and endured both enormous sacrifices and hardships to pursue the ideal that peace is more than just the time after the violence ends. For many, peace is a way of being and thinking. In my own faith as a Quaker, I try my best to align with our “peace testimony”. It’s one of those Quaker ways of being that we’re often associated with – even if we don’t have any single way to define that peace testimony for everyone. Instead, peace is something that we try to do and live, through the relationships that we nurture with those around us, through our political participation, and through the quotidian decisions we make that ultimately create durable institutions of peace, or that push back against institutions that exploit, humiliate, disrespect, or harm others. We also make very concerted efforts to discern creative solutions to the inevitable conflicts that arise in any society. And Quakers – few in number – are just one of many peacemaking groups in this country, or from this country who labor abroad in the quest for peace.
And what about the Peace Corps? Aren’t they worth a mention on Memorial Day? Since President Kennedy established it in 1961, almost 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have gone and continue to go around the world, often in very difficult situations and almost always in conditions of hardship and discomfort, to represent American peacemaking in almost 140 countries. This is peacemaking at its most ennobling. Volunteers willingly sacrifice two or more years of very strenuous work, learn challenging foreign languages, and navigate their ways into the hearts and minds of people who may have had little or no direct experience of Americans before. This is no summer camp; the world can be a very dangerous place and more than 300 Peace Corps Volunteers have died in service.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we dilute or redirect the important recognition of American patriots who have served in our military, for principles and values that they and all Americans hold dear (or ought to!). Yet perhaps the greatest honor we can assign to our veterans and fallen heroes is to commit ourselves to achieve what they fought so hard for – peace. After all, by the time the fighting starts, so many opportunities for peace may have already been lost or ignored, and calling upon our women and men in uniform (and all the civilians and families who support them) is a tacit recognition that we’ve been unable to head off the violence.
Yes, sometimes we face adversaries whose leaders have no interest in the pursuit of peace, but their leaders almost certainly also have insufficient concern for the horrific consequences of ignoring opportunities for peace. All people everywhere need to rethink leadership, and to advocate for ethical leaders instead of cutthroat rulers. There is a difference, and by demanding universally moral standards of leadership in every society, we empower people to find and follow their own peacemakers. All people everywhere deserve ethical leadership that is committed to peace and human well-being.
But Memorial Day is about Americans. And as we honor America’s military heroes today, we owe them the recognition that we all need to try harder. Peace – and their lives – are worth it.