Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?
by Howard Zinn, 1976
from the Zinn Reader
Memorial Day will be celebrated ... by the usual betrayal
of the dead, by the hypocritical patriotism of the politicians
and contractors preparing for more wars, more graves to receive
more flowers on future Memorial Days. The memory of the dead deserves
a different dedication. To peace, to defiance of governments.
In 1974, I was invited by Tom Winship, the editor of the Boston
Globe, who had been bold enough in 1971 to print part of the top
secret Pentagon Papers on the history of the Vietnam War, to write
a bi-weekly column for the op-ed page of the newspaper. I did
that for about a year and a half. The column below appeared June
2, 1976, in connection with that year's Memorial Day. After it
appeared, my column was canceled.
Memorial Day will be celebrated as usual, by high-speed collisions
of automobiles and bodies strewn on highways and the sound of
ambulance sirens throughout the land.
It will also be celebrated by the display of flags, the sound
of bugles and drums, by parades and speeches and unthinking applause.
It will be celebrated by giant corporations, which make guns,
bombs, fighter planes, aircraft carriers and an endless assortment
of military junk and which await the $100 billion in contracts
to be approved soon by Congress and the President.
There was a young woman in New Hampshire who refused to allow
her husband, killed in Vietnam, to be given a military burial.
She rejected the hollow ceremony ordered by those who sent him
and 50,000 others to their deaths. Her courage should be cherished
on Memorial Day. There were the B52 pilots who refused to fly
those last vicious raids of Nixon's and Kissinger's war. Have
any of the great universities, so quick to give honorary degrees
to God-knows-whom, thought to honor those men at this Commencement
time, on this Memorial Day?
No politician who voted funds for war, no business contractor
for the military, no general who ordered young men into battle,
no FBI man who spied on anti-war activities, should be invited
to public ceremonies on this sacred day. Let the dead of past
wars he honored. Let those who live pledge themselves never to
embark on mass slaughter again.
"The shell had his number on it. The blood ran into the
ground...Where his chest ought to have been they pinned the Congressional
Medal, the DSC, the Medaille Militaire, the Belgian Croix de Guerre,
the Italian gold medal, The Vitutea Militara sent by Queen Marie
of Rumania. All the Washingtonians brought flowers .. Woodrow
Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies."
Those are the concluding lines of John Dos Passos angry novel
1919. Let us honor him on Memorial Day.
And also Thoreau, who went to jail to protest the Mexican
And Mark Twain, who denounced our war against the Filipinos
at the turn of the century.
And I.F. Stone, who virtually alone among newspaper editors
exposed the fraud and brutality of the Korean War.
Let us honor Martin Luther King, who refused the enticements
of the White House, and the cautions of associates, and thundered
against the war in Vietnam.
Memorial Day should be a day for putting flowers on graves
and planting trees. Also, for destroying the weapons of death
that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources
and threaten our children and grandchildren.
On Memorial Day we should take note that, in the name of "defense,"
our taxes have been used to spend a quarter of a billion dollars
on a helicopter assault ship called "the biggest floating
lemon," which was accepted by the Navy although it had over
2,000 major defects at the time of its trial cruise.
Meanwhile, there is such a shortage of housing that millions
live in dilapidated sections of our cities and millions more are
forced to pay high rents or high interest rates on their mortgages.
There's 90 billion for the B1 bomber, but people don't have money
to pay hospital bills.
We must be practical, say those whose practicality has consisted
of a war every generation. We mustn't deplete our defenses. Say
those who have depleted our youth, stolen our resources. In the
end, it is living people, not corpses, creative energy, not destructive
rage, which are our only real defense, not just against other
governments trying to kill us, but against our own, also trying
to kill us.
Let us not set out, this Memorial Day, on the same old drunken
ride to death.