Two years ago my wife and I lost a baby. We went to the 20 week ultrasound, expecting to hear if we were having a boy or a girl. Instead, we did not hear a heartbeat. The pain was sharp and immediate, though it has dulled with time. In our grief we sought comfort in friends and relatives who shared it, who had also looked forward to a new grandchild or niece or nephew.
We never got the chance to know our son, Walter Tyler Carp, and so I cannot imagine the grief the parents of my friend Nick Crombie felt when they heard their son had been killed by an IED in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, on June 7th, 2006, or the anguish suffered by the parents of Marisol Heredia, a soldier from my unit I helped treat after she was horrifically burned in an accident on our base in Baghdad, as they watched their daughter die on a hospital bed in San Antonio, Texas. But I still grieve for my lost friend and I still remember Marisol pleading with me to kill her as we feebly tried to soothe her burns.
On Memorial Day, we are offered a national version of that simple sharing of grief that helped my wife and I face our loss. The President calls my dead friends heroes. Media outlets incessantly blare thanks to them and their families and sometimes even to me as a veteran, though I am still alive. We are supposed to think somber and grateful thoughts. Oh, and we are supposed to kick off the summer vacation season with a barbeque and a mattress sale.
But the mattress sales and the barbeques are not why I hate Memorial Day. When my father called me the day Walter died, he wept with me. When the President solemnly intones his “gratitude” at Arlington National Cemetery, he does so while sending more Nicks and Marisols to their deaths. He does so while turning them from the kids they were into the heroes he needs them to be so that he can dupe another generation of kids the way we were duped.
But they were not heroes. Telling the truth does the dead no dishonor, and lying does them no honor. Like most soldiers in every war from every country, my dead were just kids who believed the things a sick culture told them about duty, honor, and country. They, like me, maybe even like you, were raised saying the Pledge and standing for the Star-Spangled Banner, playing with GI Joes and being taught to be grateful to the military for their “freedom.”
We who knew the dead carry our grief with us every day, but on Memorial Day we are offered the chance to subsume our pain in a national ceremony of mourning. The rituals offer more than just communal grief; they offer the chance to assign great meaning and purpose to the senseless horror that destroyed the young lives of our dead. Nick wasn’t a kid from Winnemucca who got killed by a roadside bomb in a futile war he, like me, mistakenly thought was his affair; he was a great hero who died for our freedom.
But when we indulge in these rituals, we help animate their deeper purpose- the seduction of another group of young men and women by the mythology of the nation. I grieve for my dead, but I look at my young sons and I know that I cannot let myself be tempted into these faux rationalizations of their deaths. We cannot allow our dead to be turned into the iconography of war. We must gird up our loins and face the senseless horror that ripped their bodies apart and the central nightmare of their deaths: that their deaths were meaningless; they died for nothing. They were grist for a mill, and that mill still grinds up lives today.
The United States government took our dead from us, and now seeks to appropriate their memory and our grief as well. But no, Mr. Obama, you cannot have my dead, and you cannot have my grief. I don’t grieve for fallen heroes. I grieve for Nick. He was young, and you never knew him.