Honoring Our Dead Means Acknowledging War’s Truths

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.

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