To be sure, there’s all kinds of people in the world and we tend to do things differently. This certainly applies to holiday observances, especially the ones that draw on our religious, patriotic, or martial sentiments. It’s therefore to be expected, as they reflected over at War On The Rocks, that we all do Memorial Day differently: “Some will visit cemeteries, others will spend some time alone, and still others will take a moment amid a chaotic and happy day with family or friends to remember what today is. It doesn’t matter how we do it. It’s just important that we do it.” Probably – though my inner-Augustinian tends to blanch at liberty without limits. In any case, their assumption that remembrance ought to be done is correct. Except for those who think they’re wrong.
Reflecting on the writings and comments surrounding Memorial Day over the last week or so, it is clear that some prefer to distance themselves from remembrance day by strictly qualifying the remembrance, opining that Memorial Day veers too sharply toward jingoism. Within the Christian community, this is the standard lamentation of our pacifist neighbors. Believing that contemporary Christians have abandoned the supposed near-uniform pacifistic theology of the early Church and their witness to peacemaking, these “ordinary radicals” insist the greatest sacrifice of war is not the life that is lost for a friend but rather the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill. They deem killing to be, without proviso, a “demonically arrogant” action that swaps fidelity to Jesus Christ for adultery with the Uncle Sam. Contending that Memorial Day is in most instances a celebration of that which is militaristic – which is to martiality what jingoism is to patriotism – they conclude that it is thereby unchristian. What ought to be remembered, some contend, is not our own fallen but that we have arrogated to ourselves the will to make others fall. To observe Memorial Day, then, is to celebrate violence. Such folks get particularly exercised when church services this weekend include uniformed military personnel, the carrying of the flag, the playing of the National Anthem, or some other act of patriotic memory.
My own church (alas) did nothing this past Sunday to discomfit the pacifists. Now, in full disclosure, I was a bit late, so there’s some small chance perhaps I missed something in the opening announcements. But in between the call to worship and the closing benediction there was nothing to suggest Memorial Day was nigh: no prayers for the lost or their families, no commentary on the nature of other-centered self-giving, no acknowledgment or gratitude of any kind. If it’s true there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends, surely we could have mustered some affection to nod toward those who did. Interestingly, the couple leading the congregational prayer did cast a skyward orison in favor of those seeking justice in our nation’s rent cities, torn as they are by structural injustice, and to pray for an unqualified end to police violence. This was enough to send my mind a-wandering.
Too many Christians clearly get violence wrong. Hamstrung by insufficiently precise tools of moral analysis, some fail to adequately distinguish between species of violence. The distinctions are, of course, irrelevant to the ordinary radical for whom all violence is morally corrupting and therefore unacceptable. To their mind, violence is simply and always intrinsically morally evil and can never serve or promote moral ends. Against this, the Augustinian stream of just war realism, contending that violence justly deployed is never inaugural but always only responsive to an act of unjust violence already enacted or clearly imminent, recognizes occasions – whether on the streets of Ferguson or Ramadi – in which violence must sometimes be employed to protect the innocent from injustice. In such moments, where the simple choice between violence and non-violence no longer exists, the moral impetus to prefer the threatened innocent over the guilty aggressor is imitative of a God who ordained the sword to maintain the goods of order, peace, and justice against the chaos and evil that make a hash of life where such goods are absent.
Of course, if we get violence wrong so too does our view of killing go awry. Failing again to recognize vital distinctions, we abandon much of our classical and Judeo-Christian moral patrimony in which we find articulated what is naturally apprehended: killing comes in different kinds. Some killing is morally evil, some neutral, and some justified. Positive law follows natural and divine law in distinguishing unlawful killing with malice from accidental homicide and both from killing in defense of the innocent or killing as a rightly retributive act against an injustice, as in the case of justified war. So, too, does intention and disposition matter: killing can be done with malice and a cruel relish in the enemy’s anguish or it can be done with reluctance, with a preference for the peace that might have come had the circumstances been different. The difference matters: we must be able to make for ourselves, and to help our warfighters make, basic distinctions between the use of force that is unrestrained and morally unjustifiable and that deployment of violence aimed at justifiable ends. In light of the crisis of moral injury the ability to morally discern aggression from self-defense; violent criminality from the restrained deployment of martial force; terrorism from revolution; killing from murder; and so on; is vital.
Regarding the present occasion, being able to make such distinctions ought to help us remember that not everything military is militaristic. One can, as has been said, carry the flag without excessively waving it. One can be proud without being vain; be pleased with who they are without disdain for who you are. To honor our fallen is not to ignore the moral tragedy of their having had to kill others. Even less is it to fail to condemn those occasions in which we committed moral atrocities, our good memories can be marbled with the bad without being overwhelmed by them. The point is simply to acknowledge the fallen’s other-centered acts of self-donation and thereby to recognize our debt.
My own consciousness of this debt is reinforced by a picture hanging on our hallway wall of my paternal great-parents. In it my ancestors are standing before their own wall of photos – four sons and a daughter, my grandmother. All the boys are in military uniform save one – he died as a toddler of a botched tonsillectomy. Bearing the uniform of the Army Air Corp, my great-uncle Edward, from whom I received my middle name, was a gunner assigned to the 783rd Squadron of the 55th Bomber Wing. He died on takeoff over the airfield in Pantanella, Italy when a device placed by an Italian saboteur detonated, killing the crew of my uncle’s B-24 Liberator. A few years ago, I visited Ed’s grave in Arlington. Standing over his little plot, I was struck over how stupefyingly young he was. Never having met him, I always mentally pictured him being equivalent in age to my grandmother. But, of course, his hair never had time to thin nor fade to silver. He had barely made it to twenty-four. Yet, looking at the graves nearby, he would have been the grizzled old veteran to many of those kids around him, and I surpassed the youngest by a score of years. If my math is right, I have been on this earth, as of now, for 43 years, 16 days, and this morning – and I have known nothing but peace. While there is nothing glorious about dying young in war, even a just war, there surely is something glorious in being willing to.
While the sea of young dead interred at Arlington and too many other national cemeteries might suggest the waste of war, if we remember those things which we ought never to forget, including that our enjoyment of peace and justice and order is partly owed to the glorious young like those who slept at my feet in the company of Uncle Ed, then perhaps we can live and labor in such ways so as to simultaneously limit those occasions in which wars are found to be both right and necessary as well morally form our sons and daughters to grow into the kinds of men and women who are willing to fight the right and necessary wars with humanity and honor. Doing so is to remember the fallen for more than a single day each May and it is to help ensure that though the lives of our martial dead were spent, they were not wasted.