Death and a Donut.
Every Memorial Day, our neighborhood association holds a parade. The weather, it seems, is always perfect, a high blue sky with a warm sun and a fresh breeze. For eight years, my daughters and I have walked the couple blocks to the same spot, sitting on the curb under a sugar maple tree. Though they are getting older—the fourteen-year-old is driving now—they still still look forward to the handfuls of candy that will be tossed their way by Junior Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts and various other neighbors who will pass by.
It is always a pleasant morning, people out with their children, greetings among acquaintances and strangers, swarms of kids on decorated bikes and scooters, the too-infrequent feeling that the people who live around you can come together as a community in common purpose. Despite the sunshine and friendly conversations on these parade days, though, that common purpose has an ominous tone. We have come together, after all, not to remember lives but to celebrate death.
No one would put it that way, of course. Any number of commentators before me have noticed how the day’s rituals, performed in cities and towns throughout the country, celebrate a kind of civil religion, the religion of nationalism and, even more directly, militarism. The celebration of this secular mass, from the gathering of the faithful to the remembrance of the sacrificed sons to the transformation of death into the salvation of our country and a validation of its beliefs, all amid a verdant spring day, these rituals delude us, and strong-arm us, into ignoring the nagging contradiction between regretting the deaths of young people and accepting that the dying must continue.
In our parade, we have the same fixed features as parades all over the country. There is a shiny red firetruck with friendly firefighters waving inside. There is a menacing police car, the officers inside more given to nodding than waving. There are collections of children—soccer teams, scouting groups—a high school drum line, a few veterans attired variously in dress uniform and baggy jeans with vests that announce units, wars and years. And there are local politicians. City council members, candidates for mayor. One year we were graced by a visit from one of our senators, Debbie Stabenow, who had recently voted for the unconstitutional and dictatorial Military Commissions Act. At today’s parade, I met the mayor of Ann Arbor, Christopher Taylor. He’s a tall fellow with a habitual smile and a firm grip. We agreed the weather was beautiful. Finally, in our parade, there is always a bagpiper.
After the parade passes, we get up and follow the drumming and piping to the neighborhood park where an aisleway has been cordoned off across the lawn. This year someone has stuck red poppies in each of the plastic poles holding up the yellow ropes, and I mention to my daughters that the American Legion sells poppies to raise money for veterans and that they took the symbol from a poem called “Flanders Field.” The sun is getting hotter as a woman welcomes us over a bad P.A. system, the group of veterans gathering to her right. Then a drum is struck. “Veterans and scouts, tensh-hut!” The crowd goes quiet, and a tall, gaunt man slowly makes his way forward, holding a large flag before him that he has braced in a harness. Behind him walk the veterans. The sudden quiet, the children looking on, the unconcern of the birds in the trees impress a weight upon this moment that centers the day around it. A man standing near me crosses himself as the flag passes.
When the flag reaches the end of the aisle, one of the veterans reads off the names of the soldiers from Michigan who have died on duty in the past year. This year, there are two names. One is a helicopter pilot who died in a crash in Afghanistan where he was involved in training Afghan forces. He left behind a wife and two children. The other died on his base where, we are told, he suffered a medical emergency. I find myself wondering whether the veteran suspects, as I do, that “medical emergency” might be the Pentagon’s euphemism for suicide. The veteran then quotes George S. Patton, instructing us that “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” A high school trumpeter plays “Taps.” The crowd applauds. The piper plays “Amazing Grace” to further applause. The colors are retired.
The mayor speaks, He has a folded piece of paper that blows in the breeze. He tells us we are to admire those who die in service because they died defending their country. But, he adds poetically, because they died defending our values, the values of democracy and freedom, they have more than our admiration, they have our awe. Then he says that he must speak politically and that, contrary to what some may think, political speech is indeed appropriate on this occasion. He tells us that we are living in an extraordinary election year. A dangerous election year. A year in which a presumptive candidate for the presidency actually promises to torture prisoners and to commit war crimes. To impose a religious test for entering the country and to build a wall along the Rio Grande. The speech earns him a hearty cheer from the crowd.
Then we are dispersed. We are invited to visit the tents under the trees for coffee and donuts. Neighbors and friends form small groups and fall into comfortable conversation. The whole morning has been “nice.”
The effect of these ceremonies is summed up for me in a moment from about five years ago. With perfect timing, immediately following the reading of 18 or 20 names of deceased servicemen and the playing of “Taps,” three fighter jets screamed over our little neighborhood park. The silent, somber collection of neighbors, confronted for a moment with the reality of death, of the toll of our empire’s endless wars, suddenly exclaimed with one childishly excited voice, “Ooo!” They applaud the planes.
The mayor’s anti-Trump speech was effective, a triumph of the humanity and righteousness of the Democratic Party. The Democratic mayor and the Democratic crowd of Ann Arborites have no qualm sending young men and women to their deaths in the names of Freedom and Democracy, and they take deep satisfaction in their superiority to the fascistic Trump. The donuts and coffee are delicious. But if I could, I would sit them all down and have them read science fiction author Steven Brust’s response to an anti-Trump petition he was asked to sign by his fellow writers. Brust declined to sign, not because he sees Trump as anything but the representative of “all of the filth, degeneracy, and despair of capitalism in its death agony,” but because he saw in the petition the implicit endorsement, or at least acceptance, of the two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“You appeal to me as a writer,” Brust says. “Yet isn’t our highest goal as writers to lay bare the contradictions that are concealed within the relations of everyday life? To denounce Trump without also denouncing the other candidates of the capitalist parties—that is, the parties that support wars of aggression, the militarization of the police, domestic spying, persecution of whistle-blowers, torture, and war crimes, all of which have been carried out by both major parties, and none of which have been opposed by any major candidate—is not to reveal the truth, but to conceal it.”
Brust goes on to excoriate those who hold to the “lesser-of-two-evils” mantra. Referring to the common comparison of Trump to Hitler, Brust wisely notes that “it is worth remembering that Hitler was defeated in the election of 1932 by a coalition organized by those who thought anyone was better than Hitler. The Nazis, in other words, were “lesser eviled” all the way into power. If when someone says Trump you hear Hitler, then when someone says Clinton you ought to hear Hindenberg.”
I would go Brust one step further. Despite his use of nationalist jingoism, Trump is no more a sure bet to continue to take us into wars of aggression than his Democratic rivals. Based on their words and their records, both Clinton and Sanders can be counted on to continue the policy of perpetual war. Wars not fought to protect democracy (what democracy?) or freedom (the NSA is listening), but to promote the economic interests of our brutal empire.
No, the enemy is not terrorism or Islam, not Mexican immigrants or even Donald J. Trump. The enemy is capitalism, the way of life that is driven by profit rather than by preservation of life. As long as we make concessions to capitalism, we will continue to read the names of young people who have died needlessly. That is the political message that needs to be shared at Memorial Day parades. It is the only message that can compete with fuzzy-headed sentiment and the only one that can finally silence the fighter jets.
Photo source: talkingproud.us