STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — MAY 28, 2012. Memorial Day is a solemn affair for former Marine and National Guardsman Ghanim Khalil — but it is a different story for the average American, distracted by electronic gadgets and the other accoutrements of affluence. What follows is Khalil’s take on Memorial Day and Modern Memory (or lack thereof). The accompanying photographs are from the Staten Island observance of the holiday — held on May 28, 2012.
Memorial Day And Modern Memory
by Ghanim Khalil
Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) has solemn origins – to remember those who died to protect “these United States.” Coming at the end of an extremely violent civil war, which claimed the lives of over half a million Americans, Memorial Day was a time for reflection. There was much to reflect upon and much to be thankful for. The nation was badly bruised but remained one. People visited the graves of troops, decorated them with flowers, cried, and remembered.
Memorial Day is many things to many Americans today: a time for shopping and sales, a time for family gatherings and barbeques, a time to hope for beautiful weather so you can visit the beach or park, a time to watch stunning displays of military machinery in action, or a time to pay passing respects to the dead soldiers of the various wars/conflicts of America’s past and present. Slogans of honoring the war dead fill every communication medium technology provides. They seem ritualistic, not genuine. They seem hollow, not heart-felt. Social network sites buzz with single sentences recalling the name of this day in the usual nationalistic styles. Some of these sentences start with the word ‘happy’ thus linguistically reducing a day of remembering the war dead to the consumerized holidays of Valentine’s Day and Halloween.
There is another important issue and that is the wars we fight. Not enough Americans care to know why we fight and why so many “had to die”, besides the spoon fed nationalistic reasons we are expected not to question. “We fight to protect freedom” or “we fight for the American way of life”, or these days, “we are fighting the war on terrorism”, and thus, complex (in often endless shades of gray) human events are reduced to fit a simplistic “us versus them” ideology. The important historical, political and economic contexts before, during, and after our wars (which provide the most accurate accounts of reality) need not be sought for clarification. Why seek them when we are so busy shopping, barbecuing, playing, and being happy? We are satisfied with displaying outward forms of respect for the war dead via flags or buying products of all types displaying the red, white, and blue.
Since the rise of the United States as a global superpower, for those who notice, there have been multiple examples of the nation’s involvement in military actions overseas that later turn out to be not so honorable or consistent with American ideals. The war in Vietnam began with a lie (the Gulf of Tonkin myth) which led to 58,000 dead U.S. troops and personnel and over two million dead Vietnamese. In more recent times, the war on Iraq (2003) represents an important example of how fear-mongering and hate can lead to unnecessary death and destruction: over 4,200 dead American troops and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, but no weapons of mass destruction. We are still fighting the idealistic “war on terrorism” (and employing methods of violence we supposedly deplore, like torture, humiliation, collective punishments, extraordinary renditions, illegal detainments, and other violations of human rights), and the death rate steadily increases with scant attention by the American media and people of who is actually dying (which includes a substantial number of innocent civilians).
Somewhere in time America grew into an empire, today struggling to keeps its place and influence in the world both most effective and most relevant, but “we the people” persistently refuse to acknowledge this reality regardless of how evident it has become. Unnecessary conflicts continue, yielding more troop deaths, yet we simply want to celebrate or commemorate our holidays in the current ideological, materialistic, and apathetic ways that keep us content.
Memorial Day today is less the weeping of loved ones over the graves of dead troops or important reflection about war and its multiple consequences. Today Memorial Day is a day of sunshine and thoughtlessness.
Ghanim Khalil was born in England and moved to New York City when he was 11. He is a former U.S. Marine and NYC National Guardsman and a member of Peace Action Staten Island and Iraq Veterans Against the War. He spoke out against the war on Iraq in 2003 and continues to write and speak about the negative consequences of war. Being a practicing Muslim, he has worked with other Americans of different backgrounds in inter-faith activities and bridge-building. He currently lives in Staten Island, New York.