For a Quaker, what’s the right approach to Memorial Day? Is it a day to celebrate? A day to witness against? A day not even to notice?  Every Memorial Day, from morning to evening, I wonder about this.

 Here in Topsham/Brunswick, Maine we have an iconic Memorial Day celebration. There’s a ceremony in Topsham at the town hall/fire station to mark the occasion, then a very locally-flavored parade that marches down Main Street (Topsham), crosses the Androscoggin River, then continues down Maine Street (Brunswick) to the town green where there is another ceremony. Halfway across the bridge, wreaths are cast into the river.  (Not a great idea ecologically but it probably does little harm.) The whole affair lasts all morning, and crowds line the parade route watching their neighbors and their neighbors’ kids march by. 

 Many veterans march in the parade, the older ones in convertibles and old military jeeps. In addition, there are military units, local police and fire departments, high school bands, community bands, scout troops, the local Republican and Democratic parties, state and local politicians, a few businesses, the hospital. Assorted motorcycle groups vied with the bands to provide the day’s soundtrack. I found myself wondering whether these latter were the contribution of Vietnam veterans, the other veterans being more of a WWII and Korean War vintage. (If these weren’t the Vietnam veterans, I don’t know where they found a place.) Two churches contributed marchers: a local Baptist church and a local Roman Catholic Church. 

 My son Robbie (age 11) participated this year as part of Woodside One Wheelers, a unicycle troup at his elementary school. Other years he has marched as a Cub Scout. Next year he’ll have to choose among marching as a Scout, as a unicyclist, or as a clarinet player in the middle school band.  We always draw some statewide political figures. This year both Governor Paul LePage and Senator Susan Collins participated in the ceremonies and the parade.

 I attended as Robbie’s Dad, making sure he got to his assembly point on time and then making my way to the parade’s end to bring him home. He was happily tired after a mile’s worth of unicycle riding.  My wife, Ellen, watched the parade with friends where Elm Street (our street) meets Main Street.  It’s a relaxed, happy day full of messages to which no one could consider objecting – unless perhaps you are a pacifist. 

 A veteran of hearing the speeches and reading the banners, I parse the messages into two kinds.  “Honor the memory of those who died in defense of our country.” That’s a message that stirs my heart. I think of Dennis Hoppough, my friend growing up, who was killed in Vietnam. I think of John Ogden, my older son Tommy’s grandfather, the one he’ll never meet, who died in the Normandy invasion. Neither had anything to do with the decisions to go to war.  Both still had their whole adult lives in front of them, never to be realized. I welcome a day to remember them.  I honor not just their memory but also their sacrifice: there was nothing selfish in their willingness to serve.  I remember and honor, too, those who served and survived the experience. They, too, served in ways that deserve remembering. 

 It is the other main Memorial Day message that I would just as soon not hear. It’s the one that urges us to renew our commitment to ‘standing strong to protect our freedom.’ It is the message that says what we enjoy today, our freedoms, our prosperity, our ‘way of life’ are all fruits of our willingness to wage war.  “We are only one new Hitler away from losing our freedoms,” is the way one speaker put it this Memorial Day. I do not think I have ever heard a Memorial Day speaker say that we can and must find ways to make war unnecessary. I wish I would.

 For too many people, those two messages go hand in hand. Most Americans can hardly imagine how it could be otherwise. War, they believe, is not only justifiable, it is essential. And so, they believe, there will always be those killed in battle, those we will later want to remember and honor.  That is just the way it is.

 So who speaks for the possibility of peace on Memorial Day?  Who speaks wholeheartedly for peace, not for the ‘peace’ that follows war, but for the peace that resolves conflict without war, without deaths that need to be memorialized?

 Memorial Day may be the hardest day to separate the two messages. It may be the most difficult time to lift up the one message while calling the other into question. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Memorial Day in Brunswick-Topsham is such a day of good feelings, neighbors being neighbors, and soaring words.

 On Memorial Day, I think, I need, rather, to rededicate myself to finding ways every other day to help people see that war is not the way to peace. Peace is the way.   

(Also posted on River View Friend.)

Views: 877

Comment by richard morgan on 6th mo. 3, 2014 at 7:26pm

 In several parades here in Long island NY Veterans for peace members march. In addition in the Bellport Long Island Ny memorial day Parade- the South Country peace group and Women in Black march and usually are quite well received by the onlookers. I think many Americans would be surprised to see that (I'd bet) that a larger percentage of folks are pacifists than you might think. Similar I suppose to the amount of Americans who are athiests-but keep their mouths shut about it. Rich Morgan Brookhaven NY ps- my favorite aunt and uncle retired from Queens ny  to a mobile home park in Lisbon Falls Me from aprox 1960-1999

Comment by richard morgan on 6th mo. 3, 2014 at 7:36pm

 My take on it ( and I hear where you're coming from-living in NY I envy the nice quality of life- and sense of community involving all-  that I'm sure Down easters enjoy. For me anyway being a bit of a rebel -ie having a "dove of peace" flag flying outside our home- and not attending memorial day parades-is my way of rebelling. My family and i live in a working class area, and it is interesting to me to see the strong peer pressure to fly at least one 9or maybe many) US flags from your home as a measure of your "patriotism". What is interesting to me, is that if one travels to one of the many wealthy areas of Long Island Ny where we live on major hohidays like memorial day  4th of July etc- few if any US Flags are in evidence. Now, logically I would think that if I was a member of the 1% and well to do, wghy NOT be "patriotic" and fly the flag 24/7? The lions share of the economic benefits go to yourself and your neighbors, and the soldiers who come hope dead, wounded, forever changed, are usually not from your zip code. I know this may sound a bit snarky-but that;s how I feel. But yeah, I respect your view and have no doubt that if i lived in a small town, that exemplified to me the "small town values"-honesty, sincerety etc I might lean more towards your take on this.peace-rich morgan brookhaven NY

Comment by Doug Bennett on 6th mo. 3, 2014 at 10:03pm

Here in Topsham/Brunswick, we did have a group called Peaceworks march in the parade. They are a coalition of local organizations focused on peace efforts. Right behind them came a group called Veterans for Peace. I’m glad they were in the parade. No doubt about it. But what is the message they communicate in marching? Does their marching seem to say that they endorse both of the main messages of Memorial Day, the ‘remember those who sacrificed’ message AND the ‘we need to be prepared to fight further wars’ message? I’m sure both Peaceworks and Veterans for Peace mean only to endorse the first message, not the second, not at all.

 How do they (and we) communicate that complexity on Memorial Day, the yes to the first and the no to the second message? Honestly I don’t think they can. Memorial Day isn’t a day for raising objections to the central thrust of U.S. foreign policy. That would risk being heard as casting doubts about the value of the sacrifice of those who died and those who were wounded. On Memorial Day, we want to join with everyone in honoring those who have served.

 So I come away from Memorial Day thinking that the essential work of persuading people to think very differently about how we pursue ‘security’ and ‘peace’ is work to be carried forward all the other days of the year.  On Memorial Day we join with others.  


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