Memories of Memorial Day

Memorial Day
by Brian Zahnd

I have vivid memories of Memorial Day growing up in Savannah, Missouri. The fourth Monday in May marked the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. As such it is a fond memory. And on Memorial Day I always went with my dad to a ceremony held in the northeast corner of the town cemetery. This is where the war dead are buried. Each uniform grave was decorated with a small American flag. As a child in the 1960s, the freshest graves contained the bodies of young men who had returned from Vietnam in flag-draped coffins. Old men were there wearing faded and ill-fitting uniforms from the wars of yesteryear. There would be a speaker (some years it was my dad), a prayer offered by one of the town’s clergy, the National Anthem played by the high school band, a twenty-one gun salute from the old men in their faded uniforms, and taps played by a trumpeter in the distance. The occasion was somber and patriotic. And the theme of the prayers and speeches was always the same — it was the language of sacrifice.

In civic religion, war is always publicly remembered as an act of sacrifice. Public remembrances of war are deeply liturgical because war is memorialized as a sacrament within civic religion. Stanley Hauerwas has taught us that nationalism is a religion with war as its liturgy. The nature of war sacrifice in civic religion is that there must always be more sacrifices. Mars is an insatiable god. The sacrifices can be momentarily suspended (in what is falsely called “peacetime”) but never permanently abolished. Because the previous sacrifices must, as the liturgy states, “not have been in vain,” the day will come when more sacrifices must be offered upon the bloody altar of war. This is the dark truth of war remembrance liturgies. Yes, the dead are remembered, lamented, and honored, but also boys (and now perhaps girls) are reminded in these liturgies that the day may come when they will be called upon to add more blood to the altar of sacrifice — either by killing or being killed. The justification for the perpetuation of war sacrifice is simple: because the previous sacrifices must “not have been in vain.” Indeed, the recurring creed in war memorial liturgies is “They did not die in vain.” To vainly die in war is the worst thing that can happen within the civic religion of sacrifice, because a vain sacrifice is a failed sacrifice, and failed sacrifices threaten to unravel the social cohesion that sacrificial religion provides. The community can rally together in unity around a heroic sacrifice, but not around a failed sacrifice.

Wars waged and especially wars won have always been the most effective way to unite a populace. In times of war the tribe, the nation, the empire rally in unity around the common cause of waging war upon a common enemy. The war dead are remembered and honored as heroic sacrifices in vanquishing evil. Thus the slain soldiers did not die in vain — they died as noble sacrifices. So whether Johnny comes marching home again or Johnny is shipped home in a flag-draped coffin, as long as the war is won, the state is unified around effective sacrifices — sacrifices that will be honored on the days of remembrance. Of course, all of this is done innocently, with almost no awareness of the dark reality that sacrifice always demands more sacrifice. Those who gather for memorial services see themselves as remembering and honoring the previous sacrifices. And this can be commendable. There is no doubt that battlefields are often sites of heroic sacrifice. But what is not generally recognized is that they are also participating in a ritual for the preparation of future sacrifices. For sacrifice to not be in vain, the cycle of sacrifice must be perpetuated. And so it goes.

But sometimes the cycle of sacrifice is broken. The cycle of perpetual war sacrifice can be broken by a crushing defeat, as in the case of Germany and Japan in WWII. If the defeat is absolute enough, it can (though not necessarily) lead a new generation to profoundly rethink its relationship to war. For example, the Japanese Constitution outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state. In the case of Japan, profound loss led to profound rethinking.

In the case of America’s bitter experience in the Vietnam War, the defeat was not absolute, but ambiguous. The American objectives in the war were obviously not realized — a unified Vietnam became a Communist country after all — but the defeat was ambiguous enough that the civic liturgists could still try to employ the sacrificial language of “They did not die in vain” — though exactly what the sacrifice of 58,000 American lives in Vietnam actually accomplished is not quite clear.

What is clear is that in terms of being a unifying sacrifice, the American experience in Vietnam was a failure. As the war drug on without a clear victory, and as much of the nation began to question if America was morally right in why and how it waged the war, that which is unutterable in civic sacrificial religion began to be spoken openly: “Our boys are dying in vain.” In civic religion, this is blasphemy. And thus violent riots during the Vietnam War era wracked America as each side accused the other of sacrilege. The sacrifices of the Vietnam War, instead of being unifying, became divisive. In sacrificial religion, this is a failed sacrifice. The deep fragmentation from the failed sacrifices of the Vietnam War is still felt today and is what lies behind much of the right-left political divide. Interestingly, it was during the Vietnam War that the American de facto state church shifted from Mainline Protestantism (which had mostly come to oppose the war) to conservative Evangelicalism (which unequivocally supported the war), because the tacit agreement between the state and the chaplaincy is that the chaplaincy will bless its wars.

Following the debacle of the Vietnam War and the divisiveness it wrought, what is to be done to unify a fractured nation? One approach would be to go out and win a “good old-fashioned war.” Of course, winning wars is not as easy as the myths would have us believe; besides that, we seem to be in an age of asymmetrical warfare where conventional victory and surrender do not apply. It’s hard to imagine how something as vague as the “war on terror” can be won in any way that resembles winning WWII. When the nation-states of Germany and Japan surrendered, America celebrated V-E and V-J Day. But it’s hard to imagine a V-T Day. And even if you are able to arrange a “good old-fashioned war” between two nation-states wearing uniforms and all, in an age where both sides are likely to have nuclear arsenals, it’s hard to imagine anyone “winning.” If we are committed to generating social unity through the civic religion of war sacrifice, we may very well be on the road to global annihilation.

When Abraham left Ur he was searching for a city — an alternative to the kind of civilization created by Cain. The writer of Hebrews says Abraham was searching for “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham was looking for a city not built on the buried bodies of slain Abels. Human history, shaped by empires and the wars that form and sustain them, creates a reality for most human beings that Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan (named after a biblical beast) famously described as living in continual fear and danger of violent death, where human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But why is it so? Why are we constrained to live in dread of violent death? In the American war film The Thin Red Line, Private Edward Train raises the question in a whispered prayer:

“This great evil — where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.”

“Who’s doing this?” If we answer, “them,” while pointing our finger at vilified others, we fail to recognize that the vilified “them” are just as confidently pointing an accusatory finger at us. Who’s doing this? When properly understood as the complex phenomenon of accusation and empire, the best answer to this dark question is Satan…with our cooperation. Throughout history civilization has been organized around the power to kill by empires who weaponize the ways and means of death. It’s the legacy bequeathed by Cain, and it seems the human race has been incapable of imagining anything else…until Easter. Easter is the door opened by Christ that leads to a world beyond the brutality of the Leviathan, beyond the thin red line of bloody battle, beyond a world under the domination of Satan.

So what is the role of the church in a world that careens toward catastrophic war? Is it to shout hurray for our side and assure the masters of war that God is with us? Of course not! It’s this kind of hubris and folly that led to the calamity of millions of Christians killing one another in the name of national allegiance during the two world wars. If the church is to be an ambassador of the good news and an agent of healing in the world, the church is going to have to become serious about being something other than the high priest of religious nationalism. With so many churchgoers entangled in the tentacles of nationalism, it’s time for the church to actually be the church. As Stanley Hauerwas has said in so many ways, it’s the first task of the church to make the world the world. And for the church to appear as distinct from the world — the world of war that Jesus told Pilate his kingdom does not come from — the church is going to have to face the fact that it cannot pledge its allegiance to both Caesar and Christ. As Jesus said, “no one can serve two masters.”


The photo is mine, taken at the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. This post is an excerpt from Postcards From Babylon: The Church In American Exile. Along with Postcards From Babylon, I’ll recommend two other books: War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity by Stanley Hauerwas and Battling to the End by René Girard. And if you’re looking for a movie to watch on Memorial Day, I highly recommend The Thin Red Line by the brilliant film director Terrence Malick.