It is somewhat irritating to me when people who already have a notable day in honor of their actions try to take over the days of other people and blur exactly what it is that we are celebrating on that day. Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day that is designed to celebrate the virtuous fallen war dead among our nation’s military throughout our nation’s history. About this much can be said. There is a separate day to honor those living veterans who have fought to protect and serve our nation, and this day is to honor those who gave their lives as a sacrifice in our nation’s wars. Let us understand exactly what this day means, which requires us to properly distinguish between our general respect and appreciation for veterans (which we honor particularly on another day already) and our particular memorial for those who have died to help defend and preserve our freedoms.
Patriotism is a secondary virtue. That is to say, whether it is noble to serve one’s country depends on whether one’s country’s causes are noble. Whether the dead are worthy of being memorialized depends on their conduct and behavior, because serving their nation or ruling regime is not sufficient to have attained a status of virtue. This makes the virtue of honored war dead a much more contentious subject than might seem to be the case at first. One man’s honored war dead are another man’s traitors and war criminals. At some level, a celebration like Memorial Day is a bit of ancestor worship as well as participating in state cultic worship, by showing one’s patriotism by honoring those who have died for one’s own nation. However, those actions that are taken to honor one’s own war dead may be taken as offensive by others, if they were judged as guilty of war crimes.
Examples of this abound. The Japanese are very particular about honoring their war dead, and as the most recent and most numerous of those war dead were Japanese who died in World War II, this presents a problem for those patriotic Japanese who would wish to honor those soldiers. I myself saw construction on a Shinto shrine in Khun Yuam that was to honor the Japanese war dead in Thailand there in that important Japanese WWII military base. The Japanese behavior during WWII was barbaric–including the rape of Nanking, and the horrible treatment of prisoners of war and conquered/allied populations in general. So if a Japanese politician wishes to gain the support of the ‘patriotic’ element of his own electorate by showing respect for honored war dead, those are often dishonorable war dead who committed atrocities against the civilian population of Eastern and Southeastern Asia.
The same would be the case if a German politician ever tried to honor the Nazi war dead. The deeds of the Germans were sufficiently horrific, not only against the Jews but against the Slavs, Roma, and others, that such people cannot be honored. Naturally, this creates difficulties within the mindset of peoples from Germany and those nations that were allied to Germany. To honor their soldiers would be to honor the horrible deeds committed by those regimes, and to bring upon themselves the same shame and condemnation as was deserved by those ancestors. This presents a terrible dilemma, because we want to honor those who came before us, but to do so is to honor their deeds and to consider their actions as legitimate and proper. When our ancestors are guilty of horrible crimes, that reflects poorly on ourselves as well.
Nor ought we to think that we who are Americans are exempt from such problems. There are many people I know who would wish to honor their Confederate war dead ancestors as true brave patriots, despite the fact that such people were traitors to their nation and fought for an evil cause of exploiting and enslaving their fellow man without government interference. Clearly, to honor such war dead would be improper on moral grounds, but it is a case where a desire for some to honor their ancestors conflicts with a view of morality that only allows honorable war dead to be honored as virtuous inspiration for our own behavior. The more stringent our standard of virtue, the more difficult it is to honor others, given the fact that many people committed very grave acts that we would find unacceptable today.
Let us reflect on merely one of those contemporary examples. As we speak, a radically left-wing candidate for United States Senator in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, is making a big deal of her own sympathy with the plight of those who have suffered in American history, most notably the American Indians dispossessed of their land in the South. Some of these include my own Cherokee ancestors who escaped the “Trail of Tears” where a quarter of them died between their homeland and their place of exile, Oklahoma, by fleeing up the Appalachian mountains and intermarrying with the local population there. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors were on the wrong side of the Trail of Tears, the Southerners stealing their land for plantations . When you play identity politics, genealogy can be a real bear to your claims, because once you wrap yourself up in the supposed virtue of your ancestors, then the actions of those ancestors reflects on your own virtue, or lack thereof.
All too often, our attempts to borrow virtue from our ancestors only remind us that the ethical dilemmas we face have deep roots, and that sometimes to be right with a just God we must seek to undo at least some of the work of our fathers, which makes our relationship with the past ambivalent and filled with mixed feelings. Even if we judge those of the past by their own standards rather than ours, we will find that many of them failed to meet the standards of virtue of their own time in their desire for glory and victory. Certainly that was true of Elizabeth Warren’s ancestor who by the standards of her own time was cruel to the Cherokee people whose virtue she attempts to borrow for her own political benefit. It is in many ways fruitless and pointless to point fingers at others with the claim that we would have handled their ethical and moral dilemmas differently. It is, however, an entirely different matter that we handle our own ethical dilemmas well. After all, every age has its own social evils that it is called upon to eradicate so that our practice may start to approach our ideals.
And that is the real purpose of honoring our noble ancestors. We do not wish to behave in an idolatrous fashion and deify them, given that they were flawed flesh and blood human beings like we are. However, to the extent that they were able to do battle with the evils of their age and to make life better for humanity, they are worthy of credit, even if we must admit their flaws and imperfections. And the same is asked of us–no one should demand perfection from us or anyone else, but they should demand virtue and nobility of character, bravery and courage as well as love for God and one’s fellow man. And if we are lucky, we will be worthy of honor by our own descendents as well when we have gone to sleep with our fathers in the grave.
The question we have to ask ourselves on a day like this is what deeds are worthy of honor? What sort of causes and ideals are worthy of our devotion, and worthy of our recognition in others? What glorious deeds or virtue do we ourselves or others possess that is worthy of memory? Will others look at our lives as worthy of memory and emulation when we are gone? These are hard questions to ask and answer for ourselves and others. But a day like today ought not to be for mindless ancestor worship, but for deep soul searching about ourselves and others. And let us remember the fallen in the knowledge that someday we will share their fate and leave this mortal life. Will we leave wisdom for others to learn from, or glory for others to celebrate, or virtue for others to see modeled as an example? Once we are gone we can no longer defend ourselves, and so hopefully we will all leave something behind worth treasuring and remembering. For that is as close to immortality as our mortal souls can find while we sleep in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the just or the unjust, depending on how we have lived our lives today.