An Anarchist Looks at Memorial Day

“Memorial Day,” according to Wikipedia, “is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May …. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. men and women who died while in the military service.”

I confess to mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s easy for remembrance of those killed in history’s wars to metamorphose into something else — glorification of the wars they died in or of the states they died in service to, for example. On the other hand, Santayana’s words ring true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If we want to remember — to really remember, rather than simply heaping our own ideas on top of soldiers’ graves like dying flowers — best to let the dead speak for themselves.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
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
.

For those whose Latin is as rusty as mine, that last phrase translates as “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”

The author of the poem above, Wilfred Owen, served as a British officer in the 2nd Battalion, Manchester Regiment. He fell at the Second Battle of the Sambre a week before the armistice that ended World War I. He was 25.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air —
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath —
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear …
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Alan Seeger, an American, moved to Paris and, in 1914, joined the French Foreign Legion. He was killed in action at Belloy-en-Santerre on July 4th, 1916. He was 28.

Yes, war is the health of the state — so let’s take care to not treat Memorial Day as a propaganda occasion in service to the health of war.

Mourning, not celebration, is the appropriate response to the state’s rituals of mass murder. Having heard the dead, let us carry flowers to their graves, and promise ourselves what they could not promise us: Never again.

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