Rethinking Memorial Day

May 25, 2012Rabbi Douglas Kohn

Barbecues, sales at big-box retailers, baseball games and glossy advertisements in the Sunday paper with patriotic images. Yep, Monday we will mark Memorial Day – at least in the United States.

It seems incongruous to me: We honor the memories of soldiers who have fallen in battle in America’s wars by being frivolous spendthrifts, self-serving and even gluttonous.

Let it start with me: I need to reconsider my own patriotism and relationship with the military in today’s America. Yes, by some it is sullied. Some use patriotism to buttress resumes or public postures, while others are so disdainful of recent American military exploits that they are unpatriotic and insensitive to soldiers serving in the military. Sometimes, I fall into the latter category. This year, I am rethinking my position.

I submit that the last “popular” or righteous war in which American soldiers fought was World War II. Few have seen the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq with any sanctity. It used to be, “Over there, over there, the Yank’s are coming…” I, for one, have felt embarrassment at some of the places to which we have sent our Yanks.

Jewish tradition understands this ambivalence. We are taught in the Talmud that there are two kinds of wars: 1) milchemet chayav – obligatory wars, such as wars commanded by God or in self-defense, and 2) milchemt rshut - optional or volitional wars, such as those when other options of negotiations fail or those whose purpose is to expand the boundaries of the state, as did King David 3,000 years ago. Perhaps this is an over-simplification, but the Talmud captured the moral conflict underlying the question: When should war be undertaken?

Admittedly, for me, it is easier to morally support an obligatory war and the soldiers who go to that war than to support a war and its combatants for which there were other options or which seems ambiguous in its moral grounding. What troubles me as we approach Memorial Day is that we often fail to differentiate between our ambivalence or moral repulsion at recent military undertakings and our emotional feelings toward our nation and its citizens serving in the military. The former – my disgust at having sent troops to devastate Iraq, for instance – ought not derail the latter – my appreciation for the majesty of America and my awe at those who wear the military uniform.

Just as Judaism asks us to sensitively and intelligently differentiate between varying kinds of wars, I think we should no less differentiate between our feelings about the wars in which America is engaged and our feelings about America and American citizens in the Armed Forces. Judaism demands that we be discerning people. We are taught to distinguish between kosher and treif, between holy and mundane.

Why not between moral conflict and moral support?

So here is my goal for Memorial Day – and it doesn’t involve barbecues, shopping or baseball. I’d like to find a soldier in uniform and buy him or her a soda, extend my hand, and say how I admire that they can go out and do their job. And I would like to pause to remember that too many have died while wearing that uniform and died without my saying “Thank you.” I owe them that. And I owe myself a deeper look at my feelings toward our nation’s conduct. Memorial Day demands it of me. So does the Talmud.

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