Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day, 2009

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Another Memorial Day, another moment of national pageantry broadcast on PBS. There were tear-jerking songs by fully fleshed Hollywood and Broadway types and a flag-waving crowd intercut with lengthy displays of abbreviated limbs that apparently caused less pain than a haircut. In the hospital videos, the damaged soldiers all wore brave smiles. Their girlfriends and wives absolutely beamed. What joy, what honor holding some gimp's hand as he learns to make do with plastic legs!

Then there was the guy on the front row of the Lincoln Memorial show. He was flanked by a mother and wife. They got him where they wanted him, propped up in his chair, his mouth hanging open. Every now and then they took a hanky and dabbed proudly at the gaping maw -- which we saw because the camera zoomed in at the apex of each patriotic song hoping there would be one proud tear to go with the drool like the Native American in the pollution commercial. Thank god they got nothing. If the guy has any grey matter left, I imagine him dreaming only of getting back to bed. Even nightmares are better.

There weren't any girls with shiny stumps, at least while I watched. I suspect it wasn't so much because it's unseemly to suggest the vulnerability of women to anything except rape, but the fact if the editors followed the same script you'd have to show their menfolk in some kind of supporting, tender role. And who wants to see the travesty of guys holding the hands of their wounded wives, when they should be getting blown up themselves?

I won't talk at all about missing queers and how heterosexual the whole thing was.

Let me move on to the other ghosts at Macbeth's feast, the missing shots of the roadside bombs and flying shrapnel that make an obscenely direct connection between the fatherland and flesh. While Memorial Day is supposed to honor Americans that have served in war, in the visual language of national pageantry, there seemed to be some less menacing reason a leg suddenly ended at a knee, an arm at an elbow.

Eschewing violence and hate and the idiocy of human war, the combination of patriotic symbols and new pink scars began to implicate flag-waving itself as the sudden cause of missing limbs. Perhaps we should all stay away from car dealerships. Forget bankruptcies at Chrysler. It's the faded banners and spontaneous amputations that should worry us.

No, Memorial Day isn't really the moment to remember soldiers enduring the ugliness of war, but to purge sacrifice of pain and grief, and separate patriotism from dissent. Let's rally around the flag, celebrate unity, even in the grave, or be censored for disrespect.

Obama, at least, plays that game less brazenly than Bush. He implies, rather than shouts, that in a time of war, in a time of economic crisis we should just sit down, shut up, and support the commander in chief as he is forced to break campaign promises. Only reluctantly does he preserve military trials for those poor schmucks stuck in Guantanamo. Only with great regret does he bolster spying programs targeting civilians, and delay civil rights for queers.

Perhaps it's only ironic to me that he sends out soldiers to die in the name of a democracy he willingly erodes. Or that most of us would rather honor our kids that are maimed and killed than lift a finger at home to save the soul of our country.

If we refuse to be up in arms, shouldn't we at least demand our media lift the curtain on this freak show and pass around the whiskey instead of the schmalz? Shouldn't we expose the real consequences of war, the bitter losers recalcitrant in their anti-heroic stances, who turn to drink and drugs, and refuse their physical therapy, who replace missing body parts with rage? Shouldn't we recognize those physically complete soldiers who can only display their interior damage with guns placed in their mouths or to their girlfriends' heads?

Yeah, I'd like to see them. And maybe the messy dead before they're lined up under white stones at Arlington. My only request is that we do it without getting out the bleach. It's time we honor loss and sacrifice in its raw and native state.

When I first came to New York I'd hand over my voluntary quarter or two and wander the Met. I'd skip the famous paintings for the medieval art wing featuring wooden and ivory Christs. They weren't gilded like lilies, just wracked with stylized pain. After all those centuries, they'd be missing a limb sometimes, too, on top of everything. Poignant, I thought. I felt like it added something true.

First, you get the brutal pain of sacrifice, then the careless wounding of time.

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