I’m in my 77th year, so I’ve seen lots of Memorial Day parades over time. I have a photo of me holding a little American flag standing beside my brother on the curb of the street our daddy was marching down in step with the American Legion. I was only 4 then, and the man who said he was my dad had just returned from World War II, alive, but having missed three years of my childhood. I was confused. For me: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” I’m still wondering if there have been “just wars,” and is it ever the best final answer in our evolution?
Twenty years later, on my 24th birthday, the New Yorker published a long article about R. Buckminster Fuller, an early inspiration of mine. He was 70 then. He had spent his life speaking for non-violence around the world. The article included his quote, “Either war is obsolete or men are.” It struck me then, and over 50 years later, strikes even more poignantly now.
I’m in a quandary. Maybe you are too. Isn’t it about time we took a serious look at this thing called war? Is there another way?
War has become obsolete. Even more, why isn’t it declared illegal? Killing is murder. Destroying property is a felony. Bombing is a federal crime. Poisoning is aggravated assault. None of this behavior is accepted in our “civilized” society. However, all of this is heralded as the way of war.
Most of us watch it, study it, weigh the score, maybe protest it, pay the bill and honorably decorate the graves of the brave men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to our nation. That’s Memorial Day. Most people observe it with a strange sort of compliance, with sanction as long as the war protects a way of life, a religion or economic security.
In researching, I discovered that this year, our nation will celebrate Memorial Day’s 150th Anniversary. Some historical sources say it was first observed in 1868 soon after the Civil War. More than 670,000 men died in those four horrible years. That total alone is half the number — 1,380,000, according to Wikipedia — killed in all wars Americans have participated in. That’s a lot of good people gone, with families and whole communities affected and questioning.
It’s not only combat that kills our fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, friends and neighbors. More veterans of the Vietnam War have died by suicide than died in the actual theater of that war. And more recently from wars in the Middle East, veterans come home to face post traumatic stress syndrome that affects families, kids and all of us to some extent. Homeless vets. More suicides. Is this a way to live?
All of this, of course, applies to humankind on all sides. So many levels of violence. Sadly, we are noticing it more and more in our society, often subtle, lacking compassion, empathy and understanding and appreciation for cultural diversity. It is disturbing.
For 150 years, Memorial Day tributes have been held in villages and cities across our beloved country, honoring the war dead with patriotic parades, gun salutes, graves decorated with American flags and choirs singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Glory, glory hallelujiah. His truth is marching on.”
Mostly these days, Memorial Day is a Monday holiday for family picnics or a three-day weekend for a quick spring vacation.
What could make this 150th Memorial Day different so that 50 years from now, our kids aren’t shaking their heads, wondering why global violence is still on the planetary agenda and making up 60 percent of our annual national budget?
In my wallet, I used to carry a little copy of the Declaration of Independence, where it says, “It is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” I kept it there to remind myself of “my duty” when doing peace protests, getting arrested or sitting in jail. Of course those actions didn’t work. Only peace can bring peace. Martin Luther King Jr. had it right. Let’s think about it.
Where’s our spirit of innovation? Where’s our creativity? As cultural creatives, we need to find new solutions, perhaps something we haven’t tried. Collectively, we can do better, and it’s time we put our heads together and come up with a better plan. War is not healthy for children and other living things. That is a bumper sticker we used to see. Let’s bring it back. As for me, and I hope many of you, I will join with the war veterans at our island cemetery at 11 a.m. on Memorial Day, in respect and honor, and to add our prayers for an end of all future wars and violence of every kind.
— Gary Culp and his wife Jennifer moved to the island two years ago after visiting it for more than 20 years.