I was thinking this evening about this Memorial Day holiday, formerly known as Decoration Day, which began in 1865 to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the American Civil War. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service.
While this holiday is marked by a day off from working by many companies in the US and marked by special sales, it has also traditionally marked the beginning of the summer which is marked at the end of summer as Labor Day.
I previously saw this day as an opportunity for Americans, myself included, to profess their patriotism and their heartfelt appreciation for those who sacrificed their lives in service to their country, but those who volunteered to serve never anticipated that they would actually have to make this final sacrifice and that they never saw it to be a sacrifice, that they chose to risk their lives in service to their country and that they entered into it with eyes wide open. That alone makes it an even greater tragedy that many draftees died not by choice, but by an obligation that was implied by citizenship and being born with male genitalia. I might also add here, that since my time, being gay or Lesbian is still grounds for a discharge and being transgender is now considered valid grounds for being exempted from “duty.” Wouldn’t Corporal Klinger in the long running TV series “M*A*S*H, have loved that, LOL?
Today I received a letter from one of my Senators asking all Americans to take the time to reflect on the meaning of the day, which is what politicians do and whether or not their sincerity is genuine or not, I do not see why any politician would not use this day and other holidays to express their patriotism and concern, in order to garner votes. That doesn’t make their expression insincere, I just cannot presume either way whether they are sincere or not.
I used to take time out to comment on holidays and this one is no exception, but I have come to a new understanding of myself and I want to address that insight.
I don’t know if any of you ever saw the movie “Patton” which starred George C. Scott in the title role. The film opens with the General walking on stage to address his men before some military engagement during World War 2. He said something that I will never forget as long as I live. He said to his men “It is not your job to die for your country, its your job to make sure the other poor bastard dies for his country.”
I was in college during “wartime” in the late 1960’s as I believe it was because the draft was traditionally used only in time of war or national emergency and always halted when the war was over and although the Congress never declared war on the the North Vietnamese or Cambodian people, the draft has been employed several times, usually during wartime but also during the nominal peace of the Cold War. The United States discontinued the draft in 1973, moving to an all-volunteer military force, thus there is currently no mandatory conscription in effect. However, the Selective Service System remains in place as a contingency plan; men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register so that a draft can be readily resumed if needed.
When I entered college, I decided to follow in my brother’s footsteps to enroll into the Army ROTC program because he had returned from being “in country” the same day that I was leaving for college as a freshman and he shared with me that he had enrolled in the program in 1960 because he felt that there was a high likelihood that he would be called to serve and he decided that he might as well be an officer than a draftee.
After a year, taking military science and rifle target practice along with dressing in uniform every day that I had a Military History class or when I would have to report to the field behind the football stadium to learn “The Manual of Arms” which was to learn to march in cadence and to practice with an old M-1 rifle which was an obsolete weapon at the time. It was the statement that my instructor for rifle practice with B-22’s finally made me realize that I might actually have to kill someone or order another to kill which I had simply never considered. I did not return to ROTC the following year and I didn’t tell my father until the end of the academic quarter. He had served in WW2 as a voluntary enlistee and remained in the Army reserve until he retired at a Major’s retirement pay. Both my brothers had served in that conflict, one as an officer, the other as a naval enlistee and I will note that the latter joined the anti-war movement after returning to civilian life and spoke publicly about not taking any pride in having served at all.
I must have learned my Military History lessons well because when President Bush, the senior, withdrew military forces after the liberation of Kuwait and did not follow through to take out Saddam Hussein, he violated a military principle of war to insure that Hussein would never again threaten the “peace-loving” world against President Bush’s military advisors who tried to convince him of his folly. That neglect of “duty” finally was resolved by his son, George W. Bush, which he would never would have had to do if his dad had done his job as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. I want to include here that, while I fully understood the implications of his actions, I neither approved nor disapproved of it.
When I reached my junior year, then President Nixon, reinstated the lottery system and as luck would have it, I would draw the number 50 which meant that my likelihood of being drafted after college was all but certain. I also had to take an Army physical before graduation which was the most horrendous experience I could imagine, standing in a line with my papers, stripped to my shorts and shoes to endure the indignant submission to a hernia exam and have my heart and other vital signs checked. That experience was bad enough but I could never ever see myself sharing a bunkhouse with other men. It was simply inconceivable and, of course, I now know why, because I never was a man in the first place.
I have always been a pacifist and never believed in war or in allowing myself to be subject to involuntary military servitude. I filed a petition to my draft board that I be allowed to register as a “Conscious Objector” with letters of support from my Dad and elder brother, who both did not doubt my sincerity. I have never forgotten their support for my conviction as a genuine one, although my brother expressed some doubt but was still able to put his doubt aside to support my decision. My dad had also honored my decision to disenroll from ROTC in my sophomore year.
As fate would have it, I never got my”day in court” and by a mere whisker of a day, I was never called up even though my number had been passed because President Nixon had suspended the draft and the Selective Service boards were no longer meeting. I would later learn that I had a congenital heart murmur which medical technology, at the time of my physical, was unable to diagnosed which meant that I would have been called and surely would have died in the jungles or rice paddies of Vietnam. It is interesting to note here that when the physician had listened to my heart, he paused and went back to double-check it before moving on.
The point of all of this is that men and women have died in service to an ideal that has often gone unfulfilled. With the advances in medical technology and early response times, less injured soldiers are dying and the number of disabled veterans has risen dramatically, yet the VA has simply forgotten that they even exist. Even with all of this “evidence”, it has no affect on my conviction that I can not and will not honor these fallen dead out of a sense of false patriotism but that does not mean that I don’t appreciate their “sacrifices.”
Instead, I have honored them silently in my heart and I no longer need to make an outward gesture to prove my patriotism or appreciation. This conviction has been reinforced by the realization that I no longer need to prove myself “woman enough” or seek validation, because I know in my heart that I am a fully realized, self-empowered woman, as I also know in my heart that I will always appreciate and honor those men and women that are honored this day.
That is not to say that I fault anyone for wishing to take time out to express their sentiments. it is simply not me, and I won’t continue to pretend it is, just like I can no longer pretend to anyone that I have always been a woman since birth living in a virtual purgatory, but now has finally inherited what, I believe, the scriptures meant by “the kingdom of heaven.”