My perception of America changed a little when I came to Deerfield last year. Before then, all I knew about this country of which I am a citizen came from my American teachers and classmates, TV shows, and its occasional mentioning in the Chinese news. It was an odd experience, seeing the flag on every house, a church on every corner: life seemed to be a little different here. However, after almost a year of being immersed in these differences, it seemed that I had accepted them as normal. But my new cultural shock came earlier than I thought it would: on Memorial Day.
I remember it was the day after Commencement, the seniors had left, and the campus felt just slightly empty. I hadn’t thought about it much. For me, it was a Monday that didn’t need a 7:30 AM alarm, a day without too much work or stress. All I had to do was show up to a series of events for approximately 2 hours. That’s it. Done.
I could do the same this year, simply go through the motions one more time and call it a day. But the more I thought about it, the more it didn’t make sense to me. If US history and common sense had taught me anything, it was that war helps no one and can often be avoided if falsely perceived nationalism and exceptionalism have not pervaded the country. But on Memorial Day, we celebrate the “heroes” who willingly or unwillingly gave their lives to the wars that helped no one. We recount the unfortunate deaths of US soldiers overseas: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the list goes on. We do not remember or attribute the slightest significance to those who died on the other side of the battlefield. After all, it was their own fault for standing in the way of democracy and liberty.
At its core, Memorial Day is a holiday that celebrates and honors all the American soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. However, such a premise cannot stand under a system of American imperialism abroad that has ruined the lives of many. Those who died in Vietnam did not die an honorable death after participating in the systematic massacre of civilian lives and the destruction of entire villages. No, they were young men who were oblivious, desperate, or in support of the government’s immorality. To the country, their deaths should not be an excuse to hold parades and celebrations but rather, they should serve as a reminder of the horrors of war and imperialism.
At Deerfield, we often celebrate ourselves as inclusive, understanding, and diverse. In the dining hall, we have 35 flags for the 35 different countries represented in the student body. We tell ourselves that this is inclusion, that we embrace difference, but when we celebrate Memorial Day, it seems like we forget that some of our students’ home countries have suffered through war because of American soldiers. As a global community, we know that nationalism and imperialism cannot be the future of this country. Yet, we are forced to come together to observe a day that glorifies such crimes committed in the name of patriotism.
Why? Why must we, as a community, conform to a nation-wide tradition without stopping to think about the fundamental ideological reasons behind it? Don’t we have something better to do with our time? On May 29, 2017, instead of mindlessly gathering to celebrate Memorial Day, we can learn about the wars, about this country’s rights and wrongs, and how, as future leaders, we can prevent such atrocities from happening.