The parades are in movement as people gather at a town common, a city park, some intersection in suburbia, and form a parade with an abundance of veterans in attendance. They often move to a cemetery with graves of the fallen—sometimes deeper in history than in the ground, frequently with the recency of newly turned earth.
There are speeches, approbation, the plaintive voice of a bugle, and a gunfire salute. The irony, celebration of a life given, that last full measure of devotion, closed by remembrance of what likely brought them down.
People remind one another—a must, given how so many have transformed the day into a time for cookouts and fun—that this should be a solemn time. And yet, even then the talk is of those who willingly put themselves between their country and harm, forgetting how often those asked to hand over their futures were driven to military service by inequality.
The first Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, came on May 1, 1865, with former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina holding the parade as a “ritual of remembrance and consecration” to give Union dead, pushed into a mass grave at a racetrack-turned Confederate prison, a proper burial, as historian David W. Blight as written.
Doubtless that many people join the military out of duty and devotion, or out of a deeply felt need to right an unconscionable wrong. When the dust settles and the blood seeps into the ground, how often are they forgotten aside from families and friends, then, as time erases human memory, by no one? That is with acts of war that command attention.
But it is too easy to forget how many people die for the country and its interests and economy without choice. Concentrations of vast wealth that citizens grow up learning is necessary for industry, investment, jobs, security, and more come at the expense of many.
That was the foundation of what would eventually become the United States. Land was taken, typically by force, from Native Americans and one treaty after another broken in shameless fashion. People taken by force from Africa, and their descendants, were enslaved, their lives and potentials drained away for the profit of others. Poor people were shipped by the boatload to the colonies and seen by moneyed interests as “waste people,” the progenitor of the term white trash, because if they died while failing to pull economic value from the land, such was life and death.
This dynamic of laying the weight of a country’s fortunes on the backs of the unfortunate never stopped. When a bridge was needed, some number of workers, often immigrants, were considered a regrettable but often necessary price. Affordable food was grown and picked by hands that would never hold a key to a house they owned. During the pandemic, millions praised the essential workers who were expected to risk illness and, early on, death to provide services for those who would then retire safely into their homes. The most toxic industrial polluters are virtually all set near minority or poor communities.
America sends soldiers overseas to protect its interests, or those of its wealthy and political classes, and many die. Outside of a Civil War or World War II, to what end? What of the poor, who bear the brunt of the fighting and waste? Companies export manufacturing that has high environmental impact to countries with fewer restrictions because it is convenient and profitable. Today, the journal Nature addressed a research practice called “’ethics dumping’, where privileged researchers export unethical or unpalatable experiments and studies to lower-income or less-privileged settings with different ethical standards or less oversight.”
The country, and not just the wealthier parts, has pushed problems onto those with no resources to object or fight back and still does. A middle-class family, out for a cheap meal at a restaurant, benefits from low wages of servers and kitchen staff and food and meat packing employees.
There are too many studies that show how lower-income persons have worse opportunities, health outcomes, and lifespans. What term is there for those who feel the blade of sacrifice to insulate others? Hero. While remembering those who have fallen in battle, perhaps we can take some time to acknowledge the many millions of heroes who never volunteered and were never asked to sacrifice themselves for the comfort of strangers.