Who Speaks for Peace On Memorial Day?

May 26, 2014

For a Quaker, what’s the right approach to Memorial Day? Is it a day to celebrate? A day to witness against? A day not even to notice?  Every Memorial Day, from morning to evening, I wonder about this.

Here in Topsham/Brunswick, Maine we have an iconic Memorial Day celebration. There’s a ceremony in Topsham at the town hall/fire station to mark the occasion, then a very locally-flavored parade that marches down Main Street (Topsham), crosses the Androscoggin River, then continues down Maine Street (Brunswick) to the town green where there is another ceremony. Halfway across the bridge, wreaths are cast into the river.  (Not a great idea ecologically but it probably does little harm.) The whole affair lasts all morning, and crowds line the parade route watching their neighbors and their neighbors’ kids march by.

Many veterans march in the parade, the older ones in convertibles and old military jeeps. In addition, there are military units, local police and fire departments, high school bands, community bands, scout troops, the local Republican and Democratic parties, state and local politicians, a few businesses, the hospital. Assorted motorcycle groups vied with the bands to provide the day’s soundtrack. I found myself wondering whether these latter were the contribution of Vietnam veterans, the other veterans being more of a WWII and Korean War vintage. (If these weren’t the Vietnam veterans, I don’t know where they found a place.) Two churches contributed marchers: a local Baptist church and a local Roman Catholic Church.

My son Robbie (age 11) participated this year as part of Woodside One Wheelers, a unicycle troup at his elementary school. Other years he has marched as a Cub Scout. Next year he’ll have to choose among marching as a Scout, as a unicyclist, or as a clarinet player in the middle school band.  We always draw some statewide political figures. This year both Governor Paul LePage and Senator Susan Collins participated in the ceremonies and the parade.

I attended as Robbie’s Dad, making sure he got to his assembly point on time and then making my way to the parade’s end to bring him home. He was happily tired after a mile’s worth of unicycle riding.  My wife, Ellen, watched the parade with friends where Elm Street (our street) meets Main Street.  It’s a relaxed, happy day full of messages to which no one could consider objecting – unless perhaps you are a pacifist.

A veteran of hearing the speeches and reading the banners, I parse the messages into two kinds.  “Honor the memory of those who died in defense of our country.” That’s a message that stirs my heart. I think of Dennis Hoppough, my friend growing up, who was killed in Vietnam. I think of John Ogden, my older son Tommy’s grandfather, the one he’ll never meet, who died in the Normandy invasion. Neither had anything to do with the decisions to go to war.  Both still had their whole adult lives in front of them, never to be realized. I welcome a day to remember them.  I honor not just their memory but also their sacrifice: there was nothing selfish in their willingness to serve.  I remember and honor, too, those who served and survived the experience. They, too, served in ways that deserve remembering.

It is the other main Memorial Day message that I would just as soon not hear. It’s the one that urges us to renew our commitment to ‘standing strong to protect our freedom.’ It is the message that says what we enjoy today, our freedoms, our prosperity, our ‘way of life’ are all fruits of our willingness to wage war.  “We are only one new Hitler away from losing our freedoms,” is the way one speaker put it this Memorial Day. I do not think I have ever heard a Memorial Day speaker say that we can and must find ways to make war unnecessary. I wish I would.

For too many people, those two messages go hand in hand. Most Americans can hardly imagine how it could be otherwise. War, they believe, is not only justifiable, it is essential. And so, they believe, there will always be those killed in battle, those we will later want to remember and honor.  That is just the way it is.

So who speaks for the possibility of peace on Memorial Day?  Who speaks wholeheartedly for peace, not for the ‘peace’ that follows war, but for the peace that resolves conflict without war, without deaths that need to be memorialized?

Memorial Day may be the hardest day to separate the two messages. It may be the most difficult time to lift up the one message while calling the other into question. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Memorial Day in Brunswick-Topsham is such a day of good feelings, neighbors being neighbors, and soaring words.

On Memorial Day, I think, I need, rather, to rededicate myself to finding ways every other day to help people see that war is not the way to peace. Peace is the way.

(Also posted on QuakerQuaker.)

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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