Memorial Day

This is a repost of the very first real blog entry (after Hello World!) on this website back in 2012. I was in a very bad place at that time. My best friend was dying. I was not good with that. I was in one of those places where a person has no patience for the simpering superficial bullshit people tell each other mostly to make themselves feel better about themselves.

And although I feel strongly (always) about the message of this post, I didn’t repost it last Memorial Day. I was probably in a better mood. This year, with Memorial Day coming so closely on the heels of yet another gut wrenching domestic gun tragedy, happening this time here in my own back yard, and given everything else I see on the streets and read in the newspaper, I’m once again in a dark and unforgiving mood about my country. So fuck it.

Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ exposed much of the truth about America. We might have looked at that work and been properly shamed and sought to make a course correction. But we didn’t do that. Anyway. Enjoy this holiday. Don’t thank our troops. Remember instead the dead ones, and their wives, and their children, and their mothers, and their fathers. And forgive me for encroaching into sanctimonious behavior with a self-righteous attitude. I have no room to talk. It’s taken me over half a century to finally wake up.

Memorial Day 2012

Cookouts! Barbecue. Hot dogs and hamburgers. Beer. Friends and family. Unofficial start of summer. Hell yeah! That’s what Memorial Day is all about. Oh and, of course, the Memorial Day sale at Macy’s. Right?

Then there’s those people who try to remind you of the more sober aspects of the holiday. Sanctimoniously thanking ‘our’ soldiers. Does that really stick with you or are they just as annoying as the people at Christmas telling us all to remember the spirit of Christmas and that Christ ‘our’ savior was born on Christmas Day?

So they had this event down at a new memorial in Irvine for service men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw it on the 11 o’clock news. The Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial looks really nice and is said to be the first of its kind in the country honoring those who have fallen in the wars on terrorism we’ve been fighting for the last eleven or so years.

But they’ve got this open mic thing going. And the wives and mothers of those who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan come up to the mic and, if you didn’t see it, I’m telling you these women are just fucking raw. All are emotional but more than a few can barely get their words out; they’re just dying up there.

Blubbering women. Most of them young enough to be my daughter, if I’d had one. Talking about what they feel on Memorial Day.

While these women are stepping up to the mic, one at a time, to tell you the names of their husbands and sons and what happened to them – as best as they can between the sniveling and gasping and choked-off words – all over this country, millions of Americans are getting drunk, washing down burgers with Bud Lite, laughing the day away talking easily about everything that careless partying Americans talk about on a summer holiday together. Most Americans are having a good time, a welcome day off from work, celebrating the start of summer and vacation time – which is and always has been the real point of Memorial Day in our culture.

A really young woman steps up to the mic in Irvine. Her two hands are in a wrestling match with each other as she speaks.

“My name is Brooke Singer and my husband was killed in January.”

Brooke looks to be about 22. She’s wearing a pretty black dress with nickle-sized white polka dots and spaghetti straps that cut into the soft skin of her shoulders. She seems to have more to say but after that one solitary sentence she puts the back of her right hand to her face and unsuccessfully tries to stifle a sob. That hand has a mind of its own and, almost to conceal the degree to which it is shaking, Brooke drops it momentarily but then quickly raises it back again to cover her mouth, which is contorted in a way she’d obviously rather the entire world doesn’t see.

A girl who looks like she could be Brooke’s younger sister stands helplessly to her left. A woman who must be her mother puts her arm on Brooke’s back and whispers something into her ear.

If you need to be told at this point that Memorial Day isn’t about cookouts and really good shopping then I don’t know what to say to you except that you’re not alone. Not in my America.

But if you still think it’s about thanking ‘our’ soldiers and telling them how much we love them and appreciate what they’re doing for us then you really need to either wake up or grow up or maybe just look up the word ‘memorial’ in a dictionary.

If this country can ever find its soul again it will be on some hopefully not-too-distant Memorial Day. One day when enough Americans are finally able to look squarely and, maybe more than anything else, responsibly, at young women who can barely breathe as they muster the courage to stand in front of a microphone in a public square and choke out the names of their dead husbands.

db

Film images made with a Leica M7 and 50mm 2.0 Leica Summicron lens.

22 comments

  1. I served in the first Gulf War (Army)..Americans are so damn complacent about our brothers & sister dying in these wars it makes me livid. Case in point, I did an impromptu survey in the elevator @ work a while back.. I asked 20 people their thoughts on the war, do you know 3 of them actually said, “Oh, I thought that war was over”.. Whenever I go to my local VA , I leave with lead in my head & heart…I’ll end my comment there..

    1. Wow. I can’t even imagine how painful the realities of war and returning from it, dealing with the loss and the trauma of it, how all of that is in the context of the casual ignorance of the country that sends others to die and be torn apart. Peace and wellness to you and a million thank yous.

    1. Thank you, Kerbey. I think the motivation actually behind writing this is there in the idea that Memorial Day is about ‘thanking our troops’ etc. ‘Good Job, Troops! We love you and thank you!’ When people do that, and they do it I think FAR more than they do any other recognitions Americans make towards this holiday… they’re talking right over and around all the Brooke Singers out there. Right past them and the realities of their pain and loss. I think that’s what’s grating to me about hearing people say that and that’s what pissed me off enough to write this. Anyway. Thanks for reading it.

  2. You should write more with your photos. These words are raw and powerful. I’m sorry for your loss. Insignificant words in the face of what you speak of. Nevertheless, real. I wish all of it were not so. But if words must be said, these are some of the best i have heard to articulate what is true to many.
    I look forward to more of your photos. And, hopefully, your words. Blessings on those lost and on all who grieve and care.x

  3. Our local paper put the pictures of our local kids who’ve been killed in the war. I noticed that they were all such beautiful young faces. Every one. I felt this maternal urge to love each of them as if they were my own; all were merely ‘babies’ really. My heart ached that they had been unable to live their dreams or die of old age. My heart aches for their parents and families. My heart just aches.

    1. I understand. It’s a horrible reality. I think here in this country with all the hyper-politicized atmosphere that surrounds war and the military coupled with our abilities and the war machine we have… the reality of young people being robbed of their lives and what that does to their families should get a day that isn’t about beer and cookouts.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      db

  4. As the designer of the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial and long time year-round volunteer, I thank you for this post. I came across it when first published 2 years ago and was grateful that someone who “got it” could express the concept so powerfully.

    The most intense emotional experience of my life was verifying the correct spelling of the names of the fallen before they were carved into the granite panels of the Memorial. I read articles and researched each of the first 4714 souls whose names would be on the Memorial at the time of its dedication in November 2010. In many cases the names were spelled incorrectly by the DoD on the official casualty lists and I had to contact the families of the dead. Like many of the volunteers it has been a spiritually transformative experience for me to be involved with the Memorial.

    We provide free name rubbings to families of the fallen across the nation – more than 1500 so far, so we are never more than a week or two away from the Memorial. We also meet with families who come from as far as Maine and Guam to visit the Memorial to touch the names of their loved ones on the warm granite panels. We comfort them through their grief and often sit quietly with them as they relive a sadness that can only be imagined until you witness it first hand.

    Memorial Day for me is not about beer and beaches and fun. It is about honoring the fallen and showing respect to those they left behind.

    [Sadly, I must sign with a pseudonym after several years of receiving threats of physical harm to me and my family for my involvement with the Memorial and honoring the fallen. I continue my efforts but do so anonymously.]

    1. Wow. Overwhelmed reading this. Thank you for posting this comment. I means a great deal to me to read that what I felt and wrote found you.

      You know I wrote this at a time when my best friend was dying of cancer. I’d just started this blog to try to lift myself out of the depression that I had been in for months. The word ‘memorial’ lol. God what I understood that word to mean by that time. Still very hard. Sorry. Thank you.

      Can’t imagine what it must be like to have international political situations, decisions made by the government, etc. one’s own devotion to your country and that of your loved one… all combine to take away your husband or wife, the father or mother of your children, or your parent.

      I was really really touched by what I saw on television that day. It hit me in the middle of the context I’ve mentioned. I think to feel what I was already feeling, see and understand for a moment what the young wife had been dealt in her life, knowing she’s but one of so many.

      And to put that next to what I know, at like 55 years old, that Memorial Day means to Americans… in our post-Vietnam world Memorial Day marked the beginning of the summer and that pretty much was it. So for most people it’s a good time. Then, as I discuss in the article, there are the people who seem to be detached from the idea that Memorial is a concept that revolves around someone being dead. And people die in wars. And so that sort of empty patriotism where you can’t even be bothered to get the meaning of the holiday… well.

      Anyway. Thank you again. And I understand the anonymity aspect. I was anonymous online for probably 15 years. I believe in it and wish I could be anonymous because honestly free speech is sort of a mirage. You say the wrong thing and you can have people clamoring for you to be fired or worse. Fired is very common, however. ;

      Anyway, again. You must be very proud to have made something that allows these families to have a place to mark their incredible loss and sacrifice. That must be very gratifying. I’m proud and honored that you found my blog post and visited and commented. Thank you.

      db

      1. Don,

        I happened upon your site again this evening as I conducted my periodic scan of the web for mentions of the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial. Thank you for your kind reply to my post.

        We are having our Veterans Day ceremony at 3pm on Sunday November 9th and I invite you to join us. This ceremony will be a bit different in that is intended to focus on veterans of all ages. Our principal speaker will be a veteran of the war in Afghanistan; he will recount his struggle dealing with PTSD. We have invited organizations that provide help to veterans to attend and offer their services to those in attendance.

        We also will also reading the names of the 36 Americans who died in Afghanistan between April 1 and September 30 of this year whose names have just been engraved into panel 20 of the Memorial. The audience members who step forward to read the names and light candles typically have an emotional experience though that simple act. If you attend, please consider being among those who step forward.

        Sadly, the addition of these 36 names brings us to within 30 names of filling the existing Memorial. Yesterday the Irvine Community Services Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the City Council approve and fund an expansion of the Memorial to accommodate the names of those who will die in Afghanistan and Iraq in the future.

        Visit http://www.NorthwoodMemorial.com for more information about the Memorial.

        Regards,

        ia

      2. I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it Sunday, IA, but thank you for thinking of me and inviting me to the ceremony at the memorial. It’s tragic that the memorial continues to grow in terms of names. That’s just my opinion. I’m honored that you have ever visited my site and thank you for what you’ve done to honor those who have sacrificed so much for all of us.

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