What a Supporter of Peace Can Know and Do on Memorial Day

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, April 21, 2023

Some countries have a Catholic Church holiday every day of the year. The United States has a war holiday every day of the year. Some of them, such as so-called Veterans Day, began as peace holidays that — like Mother’s Day or Martin Luther King Jr. Day — were carefully stripped of any peace content, and were instead turned toward the glorification of war and war preparations. Many peace holidays and formerly peace holidays and potential peace holidays can be found in the Peace Almanac at peacealmanac.org.

You’ll notice at the link for “Veterans Day” above that what used to be Armistice Day in the United States was and remains Remembrance Day in some other countries. In those countries, it has morphed from mourning the dead to celebrating the institutions that plan to create more dead. A similar trajectory can be charted for numerous other holidays in the U.S. and around the world, such as Anzac Day in New Zealand and Australia. A stellar example is Memorial Day in the United States, which falls on the last Monday in May every year. Here’s what we can read in the Peace Almanac:

May 30. On this day in 1868, Memorial Day was first observed when two women in Columbus, MS, placed flowers on both Confederate and Union graves. This story about women recognizing lives sacrificed on each side due to the Civil War by visiting gravesites with flowers in their hands actually took place two years earlier, on April 25, 1866. According to the Center for Civil War Research, there were countless wives, mothers, and daughters spending time in graveyards. In April of 1862, a chaplain from Michigan joined some ladies from Arlington, VA to decorate graves in Fredericksburg. On July 4, 1864, a woman visiting her father’s grave joined by many who had lost fathers, husbands, and sons left wreaths at every grave in Boalsburg, PA. In the spring of 1865, a surgeon, who would become Surgeon General of the National Guard in Wisconsin, witnessed women placing flowers on graves near Knoxville, TN as he passed by on a train. “Daughters of the Southland” were doing the same on April 26, 1865 in Jackson, MS, along with women in Kingston, GA, and Charleston, SC. In 1866, the women of Columbus, MS felt a day should be devoted to remembering, leading to the poem “The Blue and the Gray” by Francis Miles Finch. A wife and daughter of a deceased Colonel from Columbus, GA, and another grieving group from Memphis, TN made similar appeals to their communities, as did others from Carbondale, IL, and both Petersburg and Richmond, VA. Regardless of who was the first to conceive of a day to remember veterans, it was finally acknowledged by the US government.

I’m not sure if we should have used the word “veterans” there. We should at least have been more specific. Memorial (originally Decoration Day) was, and is, for remembering, or memorializing, those who died while participating in a war. Over the years, we’ve learned to say “serving” as if war were a service, and we’ve expanded the holiday to all U.S. wars. But, importantly, we’ve narrowed it from the remarkable remembering of those who died on both sides of a war to remembering only those who died on the U.S. side of numerous wars. And as wars have changed from disasters in which most of the dead were soldiers into catastrophes in which the vast majority are usually civilians, Memorial Day has automatically reduced the percentage of the dead being remembered. Perhaps 5% of the dead in some recent U.S. wars have been U.S. troops, and the rest have been mostly the people who lived where the war was waged, plus those who fought against a U.S. invasion. Nobody from of those latter two groups is memorialized. Whether it’s cause or effect of that, most people in the United States have no idea who dies in U.S. wars. Outside of the memorial to “Collateral Damage” in Santa Cruz, Calif., I don’t know of any memorials in the United States to the majority of the dead in most U.S. wars, unless you count every darn school and town and street named for the original inhabitants of North America.

Of course, I want to mourne every single victim of war, including participants, but so as to avoid creating more, not so as to facilitate creating more. What can be done on Memorial Day to educate and agitate for mourning for peace instead of glorifying for more gore?

On one past Memorial Day, I wrote — tongue-in-cheek — about the need to figure out a way to pre-memorialize the participants in the coming nuclear war that would leave no survivors. And I recently thought that perhaps what we should do is publicly express our sympathy to all those sad countries that have not had any recent wars and so do not get to experience the joys of Memorial Day — little-known minor countries like, you know, China. But — despite positive comments under that article linked above — I’m fairly certain that peace- and war-lovers alike unite in opposition to what they generally agree is their real enemy, namely satire. So, maybe we should try something else.

Another thing I’ve done is try to count the falsehoods in a Memorial Day speech by a Congress Member. But one sentence can take you until long after the fireworks have gone off and all the dead flesh on the grill has been burned blacker than a targeted person of interest.

Another idea I have is that, as with victims of racist police killings, we could memorialize ALL war dead by saying their names aloud — or as many of those names as we can gather. I know that Ed Horgan has been making a list of just children war victims’ names. I’ll add a link here if I can get one. But how many names would it be, and how long would it take to read them? It wouldn’t take longer than, say, singing the Star Spangled Banner, would it?

Well, here’s a case for 6 million dead in recent U.S. wars, not even counting the past 5 years. For 12 million words (6 million first names and 6 million last names) I calculate 9,2307.7 minutes or 153,845 hours or a little over 64 days. They say there are three types of people, those who are good at math and those who aren’t. I’m that kind. But I’m still pretty sure this would take a good while to do. Yet, one could do a representative bit of it.

A somewhat less solemn activity might be to greet Memorial Day shoppers with banners, shirts, flyers, etc., asking such uncomfortable questions as: “Is endless war worth the discounts? Did people die for your 30% off? Which advertising is less honest, that for wars or that for Memorial Day sales?”

But Memorial Day can be an occasion for any peace event or activity, because the first reason for ending war is that war kills people.

Some ideas for shirts you can wear to Memorial Day events:

And scarves:

And yard signs:

And banners:


Thank you for ideas to Cym Gomery and Rivera Sun, who are not to blame for any bad ideas here.

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