Memorial Day: This Time, With Feeling

Quick game of word association: what are the first things you think of when you hear the words “Memorial Day”? For me, Memorial Day has always meant three things: I get the day off from school/work, the pools open for the summer, and my Dad busts out the grill for some BBQ happiness. American Memorial Day is far from the somber day of rememberance that it’s designed to be, and I didn’t realize this until today: Israeli Memorial Day.

At 8:00 last night, the air raid sirens sounded for two minutes, and everything stopped–traffic on the highway, the construction outside my window, the guys at the coffee shop–and Israelis bowed their heads to remember those who had died for their country. The whole country feels the loss of their soldiers, and they feel it deeply. Everyone here has lost a friend or family member either in the intifada or while serving in the IDF, and Yom HaZicaron (Day of Rememberance) is a cathartic but painful day for every Israeli. At the Western Wall, the families of the fallen were addressed by the Prime Minister, who particularly spoke to the mothers of the young men and women who have died in the line of duty. He reminded them that not only did their children die making the ultimate sacrifice, but that the whole country feels their loss. And from what I’ve seen today, the entire country grieves–deeply–for those who have died.

Seeing the depth of emotion here made me wonder why American Memorial Day is as nonchalant and carefree as it is. We have troops dying each day, and yet when Memorial Day rolls around, we jump in the pool and fire up the grill without giving much thought to those who have died for our country, or the families that have been torn apart by their loss. I, for one, have always been concerned with getting the steak marinade right, and haven’t ever thought about the fact that in Arlington Cemetery, there are bereaved mothers commemorating their child’s death. There are men and women my age and younger who are putting their lives on the line on behalf of my country, and all I’ve been able to think about is getting on the road before the traffic gets too nasty.

Once I saw this juxtaposition between Israeli rememberance and American tradition, I got to thinking: why don’t we take it seriously in the States? Is it because our military is based on voluntary conscription? Is it because we send our troops far away, and our immediate safety and existence aren’t being threatened? Is it because the military and civilian populations tend to be separate, and don’t interact with each other? Is it because–and I hate the fact that I even thought of this, because it’s shameful–it’s easy to devalue the lives of the enlisted corps because they often come from low socio-economic and educational backgrounds?

My guess is that all of these factors–and many more that I haven’t thought of–all influence our attitude towards Memorial Day, but it was this last idea that really stuck with me. I was sitting on a crowded bus, stuck in traffic and sweltering, when I had this realization. I was disgusted by it the second it popped into my mind, and the more I thought about it, the more repugnant the idea became. (At first I thought it was the guy next to me who clearly didn’t believe in either hygiene or deodorant, but…nope.) However, I can’t deny its relevance, or my complicity in subconsciously buying into it.

How is it that all these factors combine forces to make Memorial Day in the States a day of R&R and the first sunscreen-slathering of the season? It has always, for me at least, lacked the immediate meaning and relevance that it holds here: no one I know has died in combat, and as much as I hate to admit it, war zones have always felt like they’re too far away to be truly threatening.

In Israel, everyone serves in the Army between high school and college, and everyone has lost a friend at some point during those 3 years. Rich or poor, educated or illiterate, you will serve. In the elite units there are higher concentrations of the upper and middle class sections of society, but when the casualties happen, they happen across all units and all strata of society. As a result, on Memorial Day, wealthy mothers with law degrees stand beside poor mothers who never finished high school, and both mourn the loss of their child. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this in America, and I wish I could.

After being here, though, I’ve realized that from now on, I want to honor Memorial Day back home the way it’s supposed to be: a day to remember those who have died for our country, even if they’re strangers who come from backgrounds and lifestyles that I could never relate to. Watching the Israelis has reminded me that, regardless of one’s background, the U.S. soldiers who have died in combat have made a sacrifice that I can barely fathom. The least I can do is honor that sacrifice, respect the memory of the fallen, and say a prayer for their mothers.

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