It's Memorial Day in America. It is one of the three days of the year when I feel my foreignness most acutely. The others are Thanksgiving - because I'm still not used to eating Christmas dinner in November - and Independence Day - when I'm just jealous that America has one and England's oldest colony, Scotland, doesn't.
But Memorial Day is the day of the year when I feel saddest about my new home. The one day when I simply cannot convince myself to "buy in" to the prevailling themes of the day and instead feel that those prevailling themes are the cause of much of what makes a great and good country do small-minded and bad things. For despite what some will say about Memorial Day being about remembering the fallen, humbly and with sympathy for their pain and the pain of those left behind by their untimely deaths - in spite of that the overarching motifs of Memorial Day are drum-banging nationalism, a glorification of military might for might's sake and of the manifest Imperial destiny of America to spread itself and its ideals across the globe.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the words of the current leader of the nation today:
From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants are frustrated and foiled, where our nation is more secure from attack and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it. This is our country's calling," Bush said. "It's our country's destiny."No, it isn't. Any more than it was Britain's destiny or France's, or Nazi Germany's or even great Imperial Rome's. All of them had a myth of their destiny - all were wrong and their "destinies" gone to dust. There is no destiny - there is only the ambition of leaders and the deaths of those who serve or oppose that ambition.
Which isn't to say that great and good nations must not oppose oppression or should stand aside against injustice - far from it. But to believe that this is done out of some "calling", out of divine right rather than bleak and reluctant realization that there are no other options but armed struggle, is to make a dangerous assumption of infallibility which will inevitably lead to hubristic wars of choice and the deaths of thousands for no good reason. The lesson of the last five years, if there is one at all, is surely just that.
Part of the reason these aggresively militaristic motifs of the glory and honor of war and the justifications for war - as opposed to the far sadder and quieter glory and honor of the fallen - persist is that America has been unusually lucky in its wars. Even in its worst wars, the Civil War and WW2, the number of killed in action was less than 1 in 100 of the population. In the latter's case it was more like 1 in 300. In the current "war on terror", it is more like one in five hundred even including those killed on 9/11.
By comparison, my old country of Scotland suffered 1 in 100 of the population killed during WW2 and more like one in 35 during World War One. Yet Scotland's casualty figures pale by comparison with Germany's in WW2 (one in ten) or Russia's (almost one in seven) or Poland's (almost one in five!). In the face of that kind of carnage, it takes a massive effort by a totalitarian state apparatus to keep up any pretense at enthusiasm for a "manifest destiny" (and even then, the old Soviet Union's enthusiasm for such a destiny was more about style than substance). This explains, in its entirety, the far more solemn and contemplative mood at similiar occasions of memorial in European nations.
Yet I wouldn't wish such massacres in every town, every community, on Americans. It has already happened and that should be enough. I would rather that Americans learned from Europe's mistakes and decided that they will not go down that path. And I really do believe that, if they don't learn from history then eventually they will be doomed to repeat it.
Yet Americans more than every other nation seem to me to be inflicted with the attitude of "not invented here", and so I am pessimistic about where their military zeal will lead. There are, unfortunately, few in the U.S. today who will take a moment this Memorial Day, the words of Wilfred Owen's immortal caution towards unseemly patriotic frenzy by those who never fought:
If in some smothering dreams you too could paceAnd those who do, or who realize that the motifs of the day are misplaced and wrong-headed, won't be at the Memorial day gatherings at monuments to the fallen, for their compatriots in their frenzy of worship for "might is right" and "manifest destiny" will make them feel most unwelcome. That's not how it should be.
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.