Happy Memorial Day From a Pacifist

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It’s hard to be a pacifist in a fiercely patriotic nation. So often, the language of patriotism hides an underlying current of pro-war values. “Support the Troops” means “support the wars/domination of the USA abroad.” “Defend our borders” means buying into a smug, often racist, anti-immigration perspective. And when people say they’re “proud to be an American,” they often imply a blind devotion to their own privileged experience of American life and a sense that it must apply to everybody in just that way.

There are many days I despise the United States of America. There are many days that the last thing I want to see is the stars and stripes. Don’t even get me started on the Pledge of Allegiance. As PZ wrote yesterday, patriotism—like religion—demands an unflinching obedience, which “opens a door to unthinking authoritarianism” that “always leads to oppression.” When I refuse to salute the flag, you should be proud of me, because it’s the freedom that our country was founded upon that allows me to do that. Truly, nothing should be more patriotic than criticizing the United States.

I hate war. I never see a point to it. It’s usually fought over stupid reasons (usually differences in religious beliefs). I get that it happens; people are stupid. Sometimes we Americans go sniffing for it, though. Sometimes we think we know what’s best for others, and even though we claim to not be interested in controlling the rest of the world, we act like that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We’re so insecure, we get paranoid. We throw around language like “homeland security” and “preemptive strike” and then wash our hands of the consequences. “Oh, we never thought that would happen.” The truth is: despite our prosperity and prominence, we act like we’re backed into a corner because one attack makes it to our soil. We have no clue what it’s like to live in areas where there is conflict on a daily basis, but some of us act like they do because of one horrible day nine years ago.

And so today is Memorial Day. We honor those who have died serving their country. It’s an important day, and yet not. For some, it’s just the beginning of the summer vacation season, and I think that’s a good thing. Let me explain what I mean. Memorial Day is important because yes, people did sacrifice themselves so that we could have the freedom we have today. They died so that we might live. We have to honor that. But, we also must not celebrate that.

What defines patriotism? I worry that often it means “dying for your country,” or at least being willing to. But there’s a difference between honoring those who sacrificed themselves and admiring martyrdom. That is dangerous territory, and demonstrates the parallel between patriotism and religion. Those who blindly buy into a sense of American superiority are on a course to zealotry. It might not present as radically as it does through religion, but I think the effect is largely the same. Those who do not buy into the message become “unAmerican” and are ostracized. What should be a unifying force becomes a very polarizing one.

And that’s why I’m glad that Memorial Day is really not that meaningful for many. They put out their flags and go to their picnics. It’s lovely, it’s quaint, it’s peaceful. Some might say that if you aren’t taking time to honor fallen troops, you’re missing the point. I say nothing honors the troops like a day spent enjoying American freedom, peace, and prosperity.

So Happy Memorial Day from a pacifist. Please, enjoy your picnics. Have a lovely day. And if you truly want to honor those who died so that we might be where we are today, imagine a world where they never again have to die (or kill) to defend our nation and the great freedom upon which it was founded.

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