Monday, May 30, 2005

A Conflicted Veteran On Memorial Day

I got a call about a week ago from a very nice guy who lives in my town. He is one of the coordinators for our Memorial Day parade and, via one list or another, he knew I was a decorated Vet and asked me to join other veterans marching in honor of our country's war dead.

As much as is possible over the telephone, I was like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights and I stammered some noncommittal reply that made him aware of my reluctance.

"I sense a lot of hesitation from you," he said kindly.

"Well, to be honest – and I don't want to offend you politically –I don't feel terribly proud of my country right now," I said. "I am so opposed to the direction our country is moving and the way we are using our military, that I don't know that I can participate in something like this."

"Well, I can appreciate that," he said. "But I hope you realize that has nothing to do with the purpose of the parade, which is to honor those who have given their lives for our country."

I knew he was going to say that. I knew it because I had already thought the same thing and I knew he was right.

Memorial Day should be the epitome of all nonpartisan events, a day when we put aside our political differences to observe something that we can all most assuredly agree upon – our gratitude for the people who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

The conversation ended very nicely with him saying he understood my confusion and me promising to reconsider my participation in the parade.

All last week it bothered me. I couldn't get to the bottom of why I could not emotionally parse all of this as easily as everyone else. Why do I seem so unable to separate my own strong feelings about our nation's actions in Iraq -- and my resentment over the misplaced patriotic fervor that has swept our national landscape -- and an observance that has nothing to do with any of that?

After hours of thought, I realized that the core of my confusion rests in the extremely divided state of our country over the Iraq war and the strong difference of opinion on the reasons that 1,657 Americans have died in that conflict. I came to the conclusion that, no matter how apolitical this day should be, I simply cannot march should-to-shoulder with people who voted for George W. Bush and whom I hold at least partially responsible for the human losses we have suffered under his administration.

Seeing people die under fire is an ugly thing and, as I quietly reflect on those people today, I know in a very personal way that the men and women we have lost in Iraq mean so much more than the macabre tote board published daily on the Defense Department web site.

These were real people with full lives -- fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives who will never be back because of the ideological policies and lies of the Bush administration.

It was made very clear that my town's parade would be apolitical and that nobody was allowed to wear political shirts or hats – from any part of the political spectrum – or bring signs that would raise partisan feelings.

But I can't go along with that, as the number of people we have lost in Iraq impacts me in an overwhelming way far larger than numbers on a page. I will consider, in my own way, the honorable men and women who have given their lives throughout our country's history and the people I have known whose lives ended very suddenly.

But I also want the ability to very specifically mourn 1,657 Americans who have died unnecessarily. I want time to reflect on their bravery and sacrifice and a few moments to feel anger at the injustice of their passing. I cannot march with people who support the policies that led to their deaths and I cannot participate in something that subtly sustains the misguided patriotism that makes so many Americans oblivious to how horribly their families have been cheated.

I want time to think about the truth. It is the least I can do for the most recent of those we honor today.