It’s Memorial Day here in the United States.
In the resort town I live in, that means a return of the tourists (and their money), and the true beginning of summer. But of course, Memorial Day is about much more than the local supermarket going to longer hours, or a day off for school kids and bankers.
Memorial Day was created out of “Decoration Day,” during which people cleaned up and decorated military graves in a ritual that is almost pagan in nature. Unfortunately in my view, the 1968 move from observing Memorial Day on May 30th to doing so on “the last Monday in May” in order to create a three-day weekend may have done much to undermine the occasions traditional meaning.
As a shaman whose work includes the Dead, and for me specifically, the wandering Dead, I’m saddened at the diminishing of the day’s meaning. To be clear I’m not someone who would generally be considered a “patriot,” and for the most part, I don’t support our country’s wide ranging and ill-defined military activities around the world these days.
We are generally a society that seeks to sanitize death in a way that allows us to distance ourselves not only from the reality of death, but from the dead themselves. The days when loved ones would clean and dress a body, or have them in the home between death and burial, are quaint memories of a time past. For this reason, among others, I deeply wish there was a day when as a society we could stop and reflect on just what war means for all those involved.
In my view, this whole issue of understanding war and what it means, is particularly important, and at times challenging, for neo-pagans and modern polytheists. We glorify and honor warriors above others in many of our traditions, and I’m not arguing that that’s a bad thing per say. But faith and devotion should, if nothing else, be intellectually, spiritually, and historically honest. If we are going to truly honor warriors, we can’t ignore the reality of war.
In the words of WWII veteran Eugene Sledge:
As I looked at the stains on the coral, I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how “gallant” it is for a man to “shed his blood for his country,” and “to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,” and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited. – With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Sledge, E.B.) p.144
If you think death is any gentler or prettier when it comes from a sword, arrow, mace, or pike, instead of an artillery shell or machine gun, you’re sadly mistaken.
Now more than ever it’s so important to try to understand the brutal, ugly truth of war.
Our news today is filled with sterile mentions of “drone strikes” and “death tolls” in places far from home. It is too easy to fall into a pattern of thinking of war, strife, and wholesale violent death as just another story on TV. The media even has taken to using the term “video game warfare” to describe drone assaults.
The horrors of September 2001 aside, it’s just one year shy of a hundred of fifty since war has been waged within the continental United States. That’s a good thing of course, but it does mean that for many of us (myself included) war happens someplace else, and generally to other people.
Because of this, we run the risk of becoming modern-day Werthers, romanticizing the struggles we never face. When we do that, we disrespect not only our own dead, but all those who’ve been thrust into the underworld in blood and fire; soldier, warrior, and civilian alike.
While this isn’t a uniquely North American phenomena, it is one I believe is more tempting to fall into here because of that vast gulf between our lives and war on American soil. To give a small sense of what I mean, think about this: World War One claimed two more lives this past March. Workmen at a building site in Ypres accidentally detonated a shell that had lain undisturbed for over ninety years before fulfilling the purpose it was created for. Killing and maiming people born long after it was lost and forgotten in the blood-drenched Belgian soil.
For the people who live side by side with killing fields of any armed conflict, the reality of war on the ground is perhaps understandable in way that generations of Americans haven’t had to contemplate.
Given the nature of my spiritual Work, as well as my artistic and historic sensibilities, I usually find real beauty and comfort in cemeteries. We’ve moved a lot over the years, and paying a visit at the local historic cemetery is a great way to feel a connection to a place that is new to me. However, I often find military cemeteries feel somehow… dishonest.
I do understand that they speak to the idea of one’s death being part of something greater, and that for many there is comfort and honor in being laid to rest with one’s comrades. However, the perfectly neat and tidy graves of war dead can seem to erase the humanity and suffering of the real flesh-and-blood people who lie within.
To quote Robert Leckie, another WWII soldier:
They lay crumpled, useless, defunct. The vital force was fled. A bullet or a mortar fragment had torn a hole in these frail vessels and the substance had leaked out. The mystery of the universe had once inhabited these lolling lumps, had given each an identity, a way of walking, perhaps a special habit of address or a way with words or a knack of putting color on canvas. They had been so different, then. Now they were nothing, heaps of nothing. Can a bullet or a mortar fragment do this?
I mean this soul—does this spill out on the ground along with the blood? No. It is somewhere, I know it. For this red-and-yellow lump I look down upon this instant was once a man, and the thing that energized him, the Word that gave “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name,” the Word from a higher Word—this cannot have been obliterated by a quarter-inch of heated metal. – Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific (Leckie, Robert) p. 233
Honoring the dead needs to be about more than tidying up a grave site, making ritual offerings, or having a veterans parade. Perhaps one of the ways we can best honor our war dead is to mediate for a moment on the wondrous fragility of life.
Take this photograph for instance.
There’s something indefinably lovely about spring shoots reaching for the sun with determination that belies their delicate nature.
If I was to tell you that I stepped on those small plants as I was getting up from taking the photo, my booted foot leaving their stems broken and their young leaves bruised and torn, I imagine the image would evoke a different set of emotions than you might have felt when you first saw it.
If we can feel protective or saddened at the loss of a few small plants in a forest none of you will ever visit, we surely must feel a far deeper sadness at the loss of human lives, and the widespread destruction that so often follows when we make war.