Memorial Day is an annual U.S. holiday that for most of my life meant not much more than perhaps a paid day off work, perhaps a party with a barbecue grill and enormous amounts of food and the beginning of summer. I have never visited a veterans cemetary on Memorial Day, nor participated in any sort of community ceremony to honor fallen war heroes.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
This year I find I am in a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, over just the last couple years I've found myself becoming more aware of Memorial Day in the sense of being distressed over the way in which the observance of the day advances and perpetuates our nation's full immersion in the myth of redemptive violence. On the other hand, I am thinking more than ever this year about my dad. The older I get the more it seems to me that his story has been twisted, scarred, forever painfully and perhaps irredeemably marked by his exercise of, and victimhood to, violence--brought about by his being drafted to "serve" in the nearly pointless decades long horror which the Vietnamese call "The American War."
More than perhaps at any time in my life, I want to show my father kindness, and surely this means showing him respect, and even honor. He's having a rough time--coming up on the one year anniversary of my mom--his spouse for 35 years--'s death, and in nearly constant physical agony from a shoulder which is almost completely ruined.
And yet this weekend, and especially on Monday, there will be this overwhelmingly loud, vocal, overpowering perpetuation of the myth of the United States of America--that our use of violence over the past couple hundred years has ultimately, somehow, been redemptive--that we the good have successfully employed violence to uphold all that is good, and hold back, or destroy, all that is evil. This is so clearly and overwhelmingly wrong to me, and my interior self rises up in a sort of rage and sorrow against this myth which will be shouted so loudly and quietly this Memorial Day weekend.
How do I reconcile these two? How can I show kindness to my Father, with regards to this holiday, and still somehow refrain from simply allowing the powerful, incindiary myth to be perpetuated while I stand silent?
Looking for answers to these questions, I revisited Simone Weil's essay "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force" today. She expresses so perfectly, for me, the place that it feels I am moving toward with regards to the question of the usefulness and consequences of force, or violence. Allow me to quote:
"Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed. But at the time their own destruction seems impossible to them. For they do not see that th eforce in their possession is only a limited quantity; nor do they see their relations with other human beings as a kind of balance between unequal amounts of force. Since other people do not impose on their movements that pause, that interval of histation, wherein lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity, they conclude that destiny has given complete license to them, and none at all to their inferiors. And at this point they exceed the measure of the force that is actually at their disposal. Inevitably they exceed it, since they are not aware that is is limited. And now we seem them committed irretrievably to chance; suddenly things cease to obey them. Sometimes chance is kind to them, sometimes cruel. But in any case there they are, exposed, open to misfortune; gone is the armor of power that formerly protected their naked souls; nothin, no shield, stands between them and tears."
Somehow it feels like my father becomes, in my mind, a sort of representative--a metapor, for our whole nation. But we don't see it. Nearly nobody, tomorrow on Memorial Day, is going to draw links between the ravages that our violence has accomplished against "the other", and against our particular selves, and the fact that to the extent that we as a *nation* have chosen to commit ourselves to the course of violence, we shall as a *nation* surely not escape these same ravages.
Weil argues that force ultimately reduces both its perpetrators and its victims to things--to something less than human. To what extent has this happened to my father, and to what extent to myself? And in seeking redemption--in seeking to become human--in seeking to find and nurture and love and respect and honor that within my father which is human--in doing these things, shall I find a place or a way where I can imagine hope and redemption for the U.S.?