Why I’m Not at Peace with Memorial Day

I have a difficult relationship with Memorial Day. On the one hand, I have family and friends that were veterans of the United States military. On the other, I have family and friends that were targeted by the United States military. On that first hand, I have family and friends who regret being part of the military even while they commemorate their brotherhood with those who served beside them. On the other, I have family and friends who would not be joyful and free in their lives without U.S. military intervention.

It’s a struggle for me to celebrate after any death due to war. The most horrible aspect is that I have connections to more veterans who died due to their service after returning home than to those who did not come back. Either these vets suffered from Agent Orange and died of prolonged, painful, debilitating illness, or they went untreated for PTSD and other disabilities  often due to poor government programming for reintroduction.

What I wish is for no war. It is a fool’s wish, optimistic at best. War, some argue, is hardwired into humanity. And where would minorities be without civil uprising? Perhaps what I wish is that we were better at humanity, as being capable of empathy and compassion-powered nonviolent communication.

I am grateful to the servicemen and women (any otherwise gendered) who believe that I am worth it. That I am America. That I am worth dying to protect. But even that is a tough statement. The identities tied to me are Arab, Muslim, Other. While I see myself as American, I still find myself making the joke that I am half alien in awkward situations. That I am somehow less than human because my father is an alien (aka immigrant). I make that joke because I heard it in America’s service-person heartland where I grew up. It wasn’t made to amuse me. The point was to bring me down.

The Bible Belt is rife with patriotism. And where patriots breed, so does white supremacy and racial exclusivity along with Christian, right-wing conservatism. And entire families of service people who resent the presence of Other like me in the United States. Who see America as the white man’s land. No, this is not without exception, but it was the strongest message I received in that swathe of America driven by cross-and-guns economy.

Am I allowed to feel grateful? I’m really not sure whether I am. That’s the heart of what I’m saying here. I struggle with this every military holiday.

It is demanded that I show unflagging gratitude. That I plant stars and stripes on my lawn and sculpt them on my cakes with seasonal berries. That I deploy fireworks in celebration of war. That I nod gravely to veterans and thank them when I don’t know where they fought or who they killed or their full context of why. They could be detached, American Sniper-style sociopaths who would love to shoot me down given the chance. I have known plenty of vets whose tales of deployment debauchery include sexual harassment of the men, women and children they were stationed to protect. Whether it was indecent exposure or hands-on assault (often to mock cultural or religious norms or because they were American and privileged and fucks could not be given), they viewed their charges as less than human as I have been viewed and treated. And what of the purposeful physical harm to innocent civilians done by bored or angry warriors trained in body but not mind for the trials of war?

These men and women who serve–they go away, they are changed, and those who return find themselves in a permanent search for the what they left behind. For what they can no longer access because they are not the same human they were before war.

Still, I love the idea of a country of liberty protected by heroes. I don’t know if this is that country. I am afraid to raise all veterans to hero status, even if their lives did end. It could be they never wanted to give their life for America, but America took so much from them they found no other option. If so, I tip my hat.

It could be they had no intention of sticking around for deployment but did their jobs anyway. If so, I tip my hat.

Maybe they were children given a false perception of military life. I know I was. I saw it as stable and safe. I believed I would be stronger, better, smarter if I surrendered my freedom to the government. But I grew up and realized I am a woman and the military is a boys’ club in which I would likely be sexually harassed and assaulted with no recourse. I do see change in that attitude, but not much and not fast enough to make a difference for my enrollment. I tip my hat the women who lost their lives in the forces, whether physically or emotionally. I tip it to the men as well.

It could be they wanted to protect whites. That leaves me in a cold place.

It could be they believed in creating a better world for all of us. If so, I tip my hat.

Maybe they just wanted to kill people. Especially my kind of people. They wouldn’t be the first I’ve met. I can’t tip a hat to that, but I can show up to say, “When you give your life to America, you are giving your life for me. I am America.”

Most likely, I don’t know you. There is a chance my intersectional identity will cause you to disqualify me from this celebration or that my complicated view of a holiday common placing the intentions of many and varied soldiers means I am less than American. If not, to the survivors I say: It is hard. We have lost many we love. But the idea of a cohesive America worth dying for says to me that we are a family. I hope you agree. It hurts to go on without the fallen. I will raise a glass to them. I will tip my hat because they were loved and it is important to remember.

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

14 Discussion to this post

  1. Ula says:

    Call me naive, but I believe in a world without war. Humans can shift consciousness to peace and love. It can happen within a generation.
    This is a beautiful post that I’m sure will reflect the sentiments of many.

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  2. Jen says:

    Beautiful as always, Shawna.

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  3. Beautiful, complex, and most of all, succeeding at humanity. So much important stuff in this post. Thank you, thank you.

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  4. I join in your hopes and prayers that one day we would be better at humanity. Someday. Maybe.

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  5. […] I shared my personal experience of Memorial Day. […]

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  6. Brave honesty, beautifully vulnerable, beautifully strong, beautifully wise, and beautifully written! – I tip my hat to you! x

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  7. […] reception of Why I’m Not at Peace with Memorial Day actually frightened me. I kind of hoped this would be an under-the-radar piece because I value the […]

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