The origins of Memorial Day can be traced back to the nineteenth century. In May of 1868, Union veterans of the civil war established Decoration Day in recognition of their fallen brethren by adorning their graves with flowers. Following the First World War, the holiday was expanded to include all soldiers in the U.S. military who had died in American wars and was eventually declared a national holiday in 1971, now dubbed Memorial Day. In retrospect, the official recognition of Memorial Day in 1971, a year in which 2,414 died in the Vietnam War, seems grossly opportunistic.
Memorial Day 2020 is now upon us. If anything, it seems as though this year’s holiday will have mainly served as a catalyst to further the spread of COVID-19. The Memorial Day weekend (coinciding with the reopening of many states) sent Americans flocking to beaches and even pools, frequently ignoring physical distancing and without any kind of PPE. In Austin, Texas (where reopened bars have been ordered to limit their occupancy to 25% capacity), revelers packed into a nightclub. A video shot in the establishment shows patrons side-by-side, hugging and without masks, negating the positive effects any limits on capacity that were supposedly being enforced could have had. On Friday, Alabama reopened bowling alleys, movie theaters and summer camps, even as COVID-19 infections increased to the point where the mayor of Montgomery announced that the critically ill would be sent to Birmingham as the city had run out ICU beds.
Memorial Day ostensibly honors the sacrifices of the U.S. armed forces. The legitimacy of that alone is questionable. What’s honorable about dying in immoral and imperialistic military actions like Vietnam or the 2003 Iraq war? That said, let us for the moment take Memorial Day at face value. If the point of the holiday is to honor those who sacrificed their lives to arguably protect both their country’s sovereignty and its civilian population, then Memorial Day 2020 is a metaphorical slap in the face to all it pays tribute to. Memorial Day’s secondary purpose as an excuse for the retail sector to lure in customers with sales, discounts and limited-time offers already undercuts the somber nature of the occasion. Purchasing a foreign-made LED TV for thirty percent off in no way translates into a tribute to a soldier who died fighting on the beaches of Normandy. But that is, of course, not the worst part of this year’s observance.
Memorial Day 2020 is, as previously stated, taking place while grossly negligent state and municipal governments bow to the pressures of the private sector and reopen commercial and public spaces. It is occurring as the U.S. COVID-19 death toll is about to reach the horrific and obscene figure of 100,000, a figure that could have been considerably lower had decisive actions been taken at the appropriate time or the multiple “stay-at-home” orders and closures of non-essential businesses across the country stayed in place for longer. Instead, the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world. The dead include the scores of essential workers (especially healthcare workers) who contracted and succumbed to the virus due to a lack of adequate PPE. It includes those with families and dependents who had to continue working, unable to survive on a one-time $1,200 check and moderately increased unemployment insurance (and whose states never passed the sort of anti-eviction legislation that others did). It includes the residents of mismanaged long-term care facilities, like the more than seventy veterans living at a Holyoke, Massachusetts “soldier’s home.”
The dead who are being honored today gave their lives for a country that is cruelly and cavalierly allowing its citizens to die of a pathogen it could have greatly reduced the spread of. This is compounded by their day of recognition and tribute coinciding with the number of virus casualties reaching a near six-figure level that’s comparable to a nuclear weapon being detonated over an American city. Clearly, there are two groups whose sacrifice should be remembered today. There’s no nationally mandated holiday for COVID-19 casualties, however. When some of them were still alive, they were “honored” with jet fighter flyovers, a crude, militaristic and ultimately empty gesture that drew the ire of the very front line medical personnel it was meant to salute. Now, as scores of Americans return to work, go to pool parties, clubs and bars, movie theaters, and do so without any masks or effort to physically distance, the virus will spread, the reproduction numbers will increase across the country, and the death toll will rise even higher. This is what our veterans died to defend: a selfish, proudly ignorant nation where profit and the individual come before all else, and mass death is normalized.
My paternal grandfather, who died of natural causes in 2008, was a non-combat veteran of the Second World War. Stricken with polio as a child and burdened with cerebral palsy as a result, he nonetheless served domestically as a private second class in the U.S. military, transporting generals in his jeep, driving supply trucks and acting as an interpreter for Italian POWs. He didn’t die fighting for his country, but served it in a non-violent capacity and did so despite his disability. I believe he still deserves recognition on Memorial Day. I also believe that the current situation is a horrendous insult to his memory. My grandfather was, like so many others, a living testament to the necessity of vaccination. Born decades prior to the creation of the polio vaccine, he suffered the disease’s effects for the entirety of his long life. Now, as a pandemic is killing thousands of Americans each day, crowds of rabidly libertarian protesters are hysterically decrying public health measures as “tyranny” and stating that they’d refuse to be vaccinated even if a cure for COVID-19 is discovered. Meanwhile, our president fans the flames of the protesters anger, rallying them with his right wing populist declarations of state “liberation.” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is effectively treating his state’s population as guinea pigs in an experiment to see how many will survive the premature repeal of the safety measures that had been in place to protect them from the virus.
This is an America that no veteran should be proud to have served, let alone died for. Thus, this Memorial Day is a hollow tip of the hat to our dead veterans. Secondarily, it is a non-recognition of the casualties of the war on COVID-19. On this day, I maintain many of the individuals that served and died in America’s wars never should have had to fight at all, especially those who died fighting in the service of imperialism and Thucydidean foreign policy. I recognize the deaths of those who’ve been lost to COVID-19, and wonder if it will take debilitating infection or the death of a loved one to get through to the many that increasingly process their deaths as yet another abstract statistic in the daily news cycle. The lack of concerted opposition to the U.S.’s criminal response to COVID-19 is bad enough, but the normalization of mass death will worsen the situation to a degree that will earn this period the unambiguous recognition as one of the darkest and most contemptible in American history.