Memorial Day and reflecting on the fallen

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Chris Hayes
Story of the Week
Chris Hayes,
on Up w/ Chris Hayes

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, Memorial Day’s chief significance is that it is the beginning of summer and an occasion for the season’s first big barbecue. That’s true in times of peace, but it’s been true, oddly, even during this long decade of war. 

We’ve fought more and more war with a smaller and smaller percentage of the population taking part. There’s no draft, and military service is increasingly rare in elite circles. 

In a 2010 speech at Duke, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke about the effect of this divide.

“Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.” 

And so while the “fallen” exist as people we think about in the abstract, most of us don’t have them in our own families. 

 On October 10, 2001, Master Sergeant Evander Andrews, a member of the 366th Civil Engineering Squadron, died in a heavy equipment accident while constructing an airstrip in Qatar for use in the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan.  He was the first American casualty of Operation Enduring Freedom, the first door knock at the home, the first flag-draped coffin of this long era of war. 

He left behind a wife and four children and when I reached his mother Mary in her home in the tiny town of Solon, Maine, she first wanted to make sure I was pronouncing his name right. “It’s EV-ander,” she said. “I know in the South it’s e-VAN-der, but we’re from Maine.”

Evander, her oldest child, enlisted right out of high school, and always had, she said, a “heart for others.”  I asked her if the wars and the deaths of those who fought it seemed an afterthought in American public life.  She said, “I think people want to go on and not think of wars and losing people and deaths and all that stuff.” 

She was critical of the president, telling me she felt he lacked the “feeling for the military that he should have,” and said the cause for which her son died was just. 

She herself won’t be doing anything formal to mark memorial day because she’s volunteering at a homeless woman’s shelter. “I think our grief is too private for public ceremonies and such,” she said. “It’s very hard for us.”

Eleven days after Evander Andrews died in Qatar, U.S. warplanes bombed a remote area near Thori Village in Afghanistan, apparently targetting a Taliban military base about a kilometer outside the town.  According to Human Rights Watch, the bombing killed 23 civilians, the first confirmed civilian casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom. A 25-year-old man named Samiullah told human rights watch that he was outside the village when the bombs started falling but rushed back to his home to rescue his family. He arrived at his family compound to find his wife and three of his children dead. The youngest, just eight months old. 

 

It is natural to grieve for those we know over those we don’t. It is why those of us who are fortunate enough not to have lost anyone in this long decade of war, can go about merrily barbecuing this weekend and not think we’re being callous. And it is natural to mourn our countrymen rather than strangers, to grieve for people with names we can pronounce who went to high schools that look like our own. 

But if the grief of our fellow citizens for their loved ones who’ve fallen in the war is increasingly remote to a nation in which only a tiny fraction serve in the military, the grief of those who mourn for their dead halfway around the world is even more abstract. For them we don’t even have a ritual, or day on the calendar.

And it just so happens that the Memorial Day tradition emerged at the one moment in America’s long war-fighting history when “our dead” and “their dead” couldn’t be so neatly divided. The first act of public mourning and memorialization happened on May 1, 1865, when the recently freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, gathered in the city’s race-track, a former gathering place of the slave-owning aristrocracy that had been converted into an outdoor prison, and re-buried over two hundred Union POW’s who had died in Confederate custody and had been dumped in an unmarked grave. 

Soon “decoration day” as it was initially called – became a way of celebrating the martyrs to the cause of ending slavery, those who died in service of freedom. Southern whites carved out their own version of decoration day, memorializing those who fell in service of the lost cause. Ultimately the day would become a national holiday we now know as Memorial Day and as the civil war faded from memory, supplanted by subsequent wars and subsequent war dead, we came as a nation to observe it together, to mourn “Our” dead, collectively. 

But in those days when the stench of death hung over a union that had barely survived, it was that “Ours” that was contested, that was claimed by each side. As Walt Whitman said of them, “the dead, the dead, the dead- our dead- or South or North, ours all.” 

Today it can seem at times as if we barely inhabit the same union as our own soldiers, and we are certainly not in union with a peasant in a remote Afghan village who is unfortunate enough to have his family scratching out its meager living where one of our bombs falls. 

But maybe Memorial Day can be a moment to reflect, and to will ourselves to grieve for Evander Earl Andrews, and to consider how broadly those sacrifices emanate, how many are sacrificed against their will. In places remote and unpronounceable, where a man comes home to find his 8-month-old daughter killed from above.  The dead, the dead, the dead. Ours all.

Memorial Day and reflecting on the fallen

Updated