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Out of Mind

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eye on the news

Out of Mind

The separation between civilians and the military makes Memorial Day somber in unintended ways. May 22, 2015
Arts and Culture

Earlier this month, six Marines died in a helicopter crash in Nepal, where they were delivering aid to survivors of April’s massive earthquake. The Marine Corps Times described the lost as “two pilots, two crew chiefs, a combat photographer and a combat videographer.” Two Nepalese soldiers died with them.

A Nebraskan, Captain Dustin R. Lukasiewicz, was a pilot and Afghanistan veteran who leaves behind a child and a pregnant wife. Christopher L. Norgren, from Kansas, was also a pilot; his parents remembered him as an “overachiever.” Sergeant Ward M. Johnson IV, from Florida and California, was a helicopter chief and Afghanistan veteran who leaves behind a wife and two children. Sergeant Eric M. Seaman was a helicopter crew chief from California, another Afghanistan veteran, and a husband and father of two young children. Corporal Sara A. Medina was from Illinois; she was in Nepal to photograph the Marines’ relief efforts, having previously captured their work across Asia and in the United States. Lance Corporal Jacob A. Hug, an Arizonan, was in Nepal to record Marine relief efforts on video, as he had previously done across Asia.

American media covered the deaths of these Marines, all of whom had won honors for their service, but the story of their sacrifice failed to take hold in the popular mind. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing about military deaths, even as the U.S. has largely withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of us gloss over the headlines—I’ve done it, too—because for millions of Americans, the military is an abstraction.

At the heart of this problem is the disconnect between American civilians and the all-volunteer military, the subject of an expansive James Fallows essay in The Atlantic earlier this year. Fallows points out that the entirety of Americans serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, from the beginning of those conflicts to today—many doing multiple deployments—adds up to less than 1 percent of the American population. Compare that with World War II, when nearly 10 percent of the population was in uniform; most American families were touched in some way by military life. Not anymore.

This separation, Fallows argues, has multiple effects—not least the fact that, knowing little or nothing about military issues, Americans are detached from debates concerning the armed forces. Our naiveté stands in contrast with how we view other taxpayer-supported institutions, such as those providing education or health care; we may or may not hold informed views on such topics, but we can all speak from experience on them. The result, Fallows says, is a country that treats its military “both too reverently and too cavalierly.” We fall back on “overblown, limitless praise” for the troops, exemplified by our militaristic displays before sporting events or the “thank you for your service” refrain detested by many in the military.

Fallows’s argument has been made by others, including Andrew Bacevich. The solutions are not clear. But the effects of the problem are many, not just on national security policy and on our politics, but also on civic rituals—such as Memorial Day.

Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) was once the most solemn civic day on the American calendar. It originated after the Civil War but took on its current prominence after World War I. For years it was associated with red poppies—inspired by the war poem “In Flanders Fields”—which were sold to benefit servicemen’s families. Memorial Day is still solemn for those who wish it to be, but its predominant meaning in the culture is as the unofficial beginning of summer—the retailers are all over that—and as a family holiday or a chance for a brief getaway. Its character was irrevocably changed in 1968, when Congress passed legislation mandating three-day weekends for multiple federal holidays, including Memorial Day and what execrably became known as Presidents Day. (Veterans Day has held out; it’s marked on November 11 every year, three-day weekends be damned.) Uncoupling important American commemorations from their actual dates—Memorial Day is officially May 30—and turning them into just another Monday off has corroded their meaning.

It’s no wonder, then, that one can go through an entire Memorial Day without being even lightly brushed by a reminder. Yet even a cursory read about the lives and careers of Hug, Medina, Seaman, Johnson, Norgren, and Lukasiewicz makes clear that remarkable people continue to serve our nation in uniform—and that many of us know more about Abu Ghraib than about the noble work that the American military does around the world. We should restore Memorial Day to its May 30 observance. At minimum, we owe the fallen some genuine remembrance as opposed to the hollow reverence that Fallows rightly decries. Fallows would say, I imagine, that there can’t be genuine remembrance without genuine involvement, and perhaps that’s true. But we’ve got to do better than we’re doing.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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