Memorial Day Sermon May 30, 2010
Northshore Unitairan Church, Deerfield, Illinois
I thought I understood the meaning of Memorial Day. I thought the uniform that hangs in my closet at home taught me the meaning of Memorial Day. I thought that growing up the child of a soldier, and the grandchild of a sailor taught me the meaning of memorial day. But I was wrong.
I sensed the meaning of Memorial Day. Last year, in this pulpit, I preached a sermon about standing at the Vietnam Wall with my father, watching him trace names of friends across the wall. It was the only time I ever saw tears in his eyes… silent tears. I saw my grandfather visit the punchbowl WWII memorial in Hawaii, and I saw those same silent tears.
I thought I knew the meaning of Memorial Day… but I did not. Not until an evening in 2006 when my wife came and told me that the television news had just reported the death of my friend, military partner, and former roommate in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. It was not until I realized that I too would one day have a name to trace across a memorial somewhere, the name of Captain Travis Patriquin. Several other names have now joined his name for me.
It was also not until this year, when I, as a hospice chaplain, have been privileged to listen to the stories of some of the last of the veterans of WWII. To hear their memories of their comrades who died… to be the person they entrust their sacred memories of the war to. To be the last person who they tell “how it was”, and then to turn to their families at their graveside services and present a flag, on behalf of a grateful nation.
When I think of hell, I think of war. It is a hell that exists in this time, in this world, not in some metaphysical afterlife. I wish with all my heart we could rid ourselves of it… I wish for the day to come when we no longer send our young men and women off to walk through that hell. I wish for the day when our problems are solved by meeting, not by killing. It is rarely those who should be meeting that instead are sent out to do and to face the killing. I wish with all my heart for what military forces we have to become a tool of peace, not a weapon of war.
But for years I could think of no way to bring about that reality. That is, until the death of my friend Travis and listening to the stories of WWII veterans taught me the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Clinton Lee Scott once said “Always it is easier to pay homage to our prophets than to heed the direction of their vision”. The true meaning of Memorial Day is not homage… it is not to honor those who have served, those who have died for our nation. Oh, that is what the media will tell us, what the Vice-President will say when he lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery tomorrow.
No, it is not honor that our war dead ask of us. Honor is the easy way out of the vision they call us to. I hear from their prophetic voices two phrases… “Never again”… and “Remember me”.
The true meaning of Memorial Day is to remember. It is to remember that the cost of war is almost always too high. The true meaning of Memorial Day is not to honor our dead, but to remember the price they paid. To remember the price their families pay. To remember the physical and psychic wounds that the survivors of war, on all sides, carry with them till the end of their days. To remember the lives never lived. To remember the horrors unleashed upon civilian populations by the tools of modern warfare. To remember the losses to our national image and innocence. To remember the loss of possibility. To remember…
I want to cease thinking of Memorial Day as if it were a Holiday. It is not. I want to end the Memorial Day sales and the picnics, the trips to the lake and the hamburgers and hotdogs with stars and stripes napkins… We should never Celebrate Memorial Day.
I want Memorial Day not to be a Holiday, but a National Day of Mourning. A National Day of Remembering… “Never Again”… “Remember Me”.
It began as “Decoration Day”. A day when soldiers, military families and friends would go to cemeteries and place flowers and flags upon the graves of those who had died in the Civil War. It began not as a National Holiday, but as a military exercise… as a reminder to soldiers that though the training for war can sometimes make it seem romantic, the actuality of war is horrific. Decoration Day reminded soldiers and their families not only of the heavy cost of the Civil War, but that it is not “play” that soldiers do. That war always carries with it an immense cost.
This past summer, I had picked out a day in late May to go to visit the war memorials on the national mall in Washington, DC. I was in DC working for the National Defense University on a project on how to prepare soldiers to survive combat stress during a deployment, and my schedule was hectic. I had picked this one particular Friday to go, but when the Friday came, it was pouring down rain. I did not know if I would find another opportunity to go, and I almost gave up on going.
But something reminded me of that old Army phrase “If it ain’t rainin, you ain’t trainin!” So much of what those memorials call us to remember happened in the rain. So I grabbed a coat, and I went to the memorials to these past wars in the middle of a thunderstorm.
I do not think I ever want to visit those memorials when it is not raining. In the rain, there was a sense of solitude, of me and these memorials not to the glory of war, but to their cost. There is nothing glorious about standing soaking wet in a puddle of water in the pouring rain in front of the Vietnam memorial. In the rain, the Korean War Memorial seems to come to life, with the statues of soldiers wearing their rain poncho’s. In the rain, the new WWII memorial seems not to celebrate a victory, but to draw all of that rain into its center pools… like the life-blood of those who died. In a really hard rain, you can barely even see the memorial to WWI.
In the weeks that came after, I spent my weekends walking the fields of Arlington National Cemetery, documenting as many of the grave markers as I could find that carried not a cross, or a star, but the Unitarian Universalist Chalice at the top. I found almost 200 such markers, not including all of the Unitarians and Universalists who died in the Civil War fighting for the abolition of slavery. Those markers had no religious insignia on them at all, but we know that thousands of our faith fought in that war, and whose graves would receive garlands of fresh spring flowers on Decoration Day.
From those graves the veterans of the Civil War heard and remembered the cost of war. I want to return to that spirit, so that the memory of the true costs of war is fresh in our minds, renewed annually… so that perhaps we can honor our dead by sending no more to join them. I want to return to the spirit of Decoration day… so that we are annually reminded that war is not glorious, but horrific.
On the 19th of June, in 1879, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had led the Union Army on the infamous “Sherman’s March” through the southern states, was asked to address a class of students at the Michigan Military Academy on the anniversary of the day the Emancipation Proclamation had first been read in the south. The advice he had for them that day is advice that we should all remember this day, Memorial Day, Decoration day. He said:
“ I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.
Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”
One of the interesting things about being a Unitarian Universalist Minister who is also a military veteran and in process to become a military chaplain is that twice annually, I have ministerial colleagues from across the country write me for advice in writing their sermons for Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.
Each year, I have a few phone conversations with these colleagues, trade emails with a few more colleagues, and receive a few notifications from others that they plan on quoting me from their pulpits on these particular Sunday mornings. I cherish that my colleagues think enough of me to ask me for advice on these days, and yet I have always wondered why there is such fear about preaching the truth of Liberal Faith on these particular Sunday mornings…
What has puzzled me is why my colleagues are so concerned about these two Sundays? Why do they seem to feel the need to “check” what they are called from our shared prophetic faith to say about these two Sundays? From my perspective, there are few days in our calendar that need the message of liberal faith to be proclaimed more loudly than on Veteran’s day and Memorial Day.
These are two days were we are called to remember that there is a cost to war that goes beyond the dollars and cents of congressional budgets. This cost is paid out in the lives of families, in the lives of service members, and indeed in the life of our nation. Each of these wars has transformed our nation forever. We were not the same country after the Civil War as before, after WWII as before, after Vietnam as before. We will never again be the nation we were before we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.
Memorial Day is not just about remembering the losses in lives, but the losses of who we were as a nation, who we could have been. It is a day to remind ourselves that the costs of war are much larger, much more profound, and much more lasting than even the lines of graves and the lines on a budget. In each war that we humans fight we have mortgaged a little bit of our humanity, we have transformed others into being less than human, and we have asked some of our young men and women to walk through an inhuman hell on our behalf.
Somehow, picnics and barbeques, days at the beach, and early summer sales do not seem to hold us to account for all that we unleash upon this world and ourselves when we as a nation choose to engage in war. If anything, the way we have come to “celebrate” Memorial Day seems designed to make us forget, to minimize the costs of war in the eyes of society. We see a few veterans standing in business suits and VFW hats and think “See, it really was not so bad… what a great day to go to the beach”. We watch as some politicians lay a few flowers upon a few graves on our televisions, and then we enjoy a day off.
It was not so for those early soldiers and their families, who went to the cemeteries on Decoration Day. They went there to remember, not just the fallen, but to remember how frightened they were. They went there to remember the smell of canon-fire, and to remind themselves what General Sherman tried to tell those young cadets on Juneteenth… that War is Hell.
Our nation is again divided, politically if not geographically. Perhaps there has never been a time when we were not divided, but it just feels different to me now. People are walking along the National Mall in DC carrying signs that declare that they did not bring their guns to the protest, this time… implying a threat of another violent insurrection, another Civil War. Politicians are inflaming this kind of rhetoric for political gain. Others are advocating the use of military force to prevent undocumented immigrants from coming to our country looking for work, rather than doing the hard work of enforcing the laws we have upon those who employ the undocumented. Still others are calling for an expansion of the use of military force in Afghanistan, and an extension of that force into Pakistan. Some are still calling for the use of military force in Iran, in Korea, and in Northern Africa.
We need an annual day of mourning, of reminding ourselves of the cost of war. We need an annual day where we all go to the cemeteries, where we go to the graves of our ancestors who we sent to fight and die in war, and lay flowers of atonement upon those graves. We need a day, at least a day, where we listen, truly listen to those like General Sherman who, having seen war, come back to rid us of our illusions as to its romance and its honor. We need a day, at least a day, every year where we are confronted with the losses of our hopes, our dreams as a nation that have occurred because of war. We desperately need such a day.
We need to return to Decoration Day. We need to step away from Memorial Day and return to Decoration Day. Perhaps tomorrow, before going to the beach or to a barbecue, to a sale or to go sailing… perhaps we need to begin our morning tomorrow in a cemetery. Almost any cemetery will do, those who died in our many wars can be found in them all. Perhaps we need to each take a bouquet of wildflowers and spend an hour, just an hour, walking through a local cemetery, laying a flower at the base of every headstone of a veteran that we see… and remember the cost.
Perhaps then, and only then, can we hear our dead saying these words to us…
Never again…. Remember me.