Monday, May 29, 2006

US Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day for those who died serving the United States of America.

Now that I live in a country that "celebrates" its Memorial Day with tear-jerking television all day, visits to graves of soldiers one has never met, ubiquitous newspaper articles about dead servicemen and the families they left behind, and somber educational programs -- a country in which being happy or frivolous on Memorial Day bespeaks a deep moral failing-- I realize just how much I took Memorial Day for granted in the U.S.

The wonderful thing about being an American in America is that one's freedom and culture is so deeply established, one's lifestyle is so well-protected, that a person can even take Memorial Day for granted. The wars and deaths are so far away, and such a small percentage of the population serves in the military, that even on a day specifically set aside to appreciate the sacrifices made to protect that freedom, we can still forget all about it. The freedom is so constant, that we forget it is there. Being free in America is like breathing -- and we haven't set aside a day to commemorate those who keep the air clean, treat asthma, etc.

And so Memorial Day in America is all about barbecues and changing one's closet over from winter darks to summer whites. Oh, and shopping.

I didn't realize the selfishness of all of this when I actually lived there. It is only now that I live abroad, in a country that fights daily for its very existence, that I understand how terrible it is to "celebrate" Memorial Day. And also, I now see the irony: Americans having the luxury to treat Memorial Day as a joyous day off just goes to show what a privilege it really is to be an American.

And so today I'm taking some time to really think about what it means to give up one's life for the United States. All those young men (and, increasingly, women) who died to establish my home country's independence . . . . the ones who died to keep it whole . . . the ones who died to protect America's interests abroad . . . the ones who died to protect other people's freedoms . . . all those people who said goodbye to their families one day, and never came home. The children who were never born, because an 18-year-old boy was shot on a European beach . . . The parents who cry every day, because their son gave up his life so that the neighbors could have a barbecue . . .

Americans are entitled not to believe that all of our country's wars were necessary or just. One is entitled to think that it was outright against American interests to enter certain wars, or that America should mind its own business, or that America is an international bully, or that instead of devoting so many resources to its military, America should be leading the world in finding peaceful ways to resolve international conflicts. All of those opinions have at least some legitimacy. Many of them, I agree with completely.

But no matter what one believes about any particular American war, the fact remains that we, as Americans, enjoy (or, in cases like mine, have enjoyed in the past), fantastic, unbelievable privileges that almost no one on Earth, now or in history, can even dream of. And so, America has done something right, for its own citizens if for no one else (and to think it has done nothing good for other countries is just beyond laughable). The country has made mistakes, but that doesn't change its identity as the one place on the globe where people are the freest and, arguably, the most secure.

Those who fought, or are fighting, in a particular war that maybe you don't agree should have happened, did or do so because, if nothing else, they believe that doing so would help people like you and me, and maybe people in other places too, to be free to shop and grill . . . and to forget all about them after they are gone.

That is really something. To fight and die for a belief like that.

I wish I'd appreciated it more before I made aliyah. But . . . we don't appreciate breathing until, all of a sudden, we can't.

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