Photo depicting a memorial on the beach with rows of white and red crosses.

OPINION | This Memorial Day, Think About Honoring the Dead by Protecting the Living

by Michael T. McPhearson

Like most U.S. Americans, I am weary of the near-daily stories of gun violence and killing. It’s overwhelming. But unlike most people in the U.S., I have seen the pain and suffering in the aftermath of the violence. My experiences in more than two decades have pushed me to see that whether it’s war, street violence, police killings, mass shootings, or suicides, the pain of losing loved ones is the same, and people always ask, “Why?” 

Michael McPhearson speaks at a temporary memorial named “Eyes Wide Open” in Washington, D.C., in 2009. The “Eyes Wide Open” memorial was created by the American Friends Service Committee. (Photo courtesy of Michael McPhearson.)

I have had the privilege and misfortune to meet people who have lost loved ones across a spectrum of violence. Attempting to console them is impossible, but the effort is always appreciated. They include service members who lost comrades in combat and Gold Star Families who lost loved ones in war. I’ve met Iraqi families with loved ones killed by U.S. troops in our nation’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. I’ve met Israeli Jews and Palestinians with loved ones killed in that conflict. I’ve met many families, mostly parents, who lost their loved ones to street and police violence. And I personally know people who died by suicide with a gun as well as others who lost loved ones the same way. All these experiences have put Memorial Day in a different light. George Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, ensured I could no longer separate the violence of war abroad from the violence in our communities at home. I know too much about the human suffering caused by these deaths to pretend that the differences are more than a compartmentalizing coping mechanism to defend ourselves from profound grief and feelings of helplessness and rationalizing so we can feel morally just.

As a result of witnessing the deep pain caused by violence and realizing the insanity of war, I no longer accept the spectacle of Memorial Day without looking beyond it. It means so much more than a day off filled with sales, barbecues, and movies about war, with some attention given to politicians publicly laying wreaths to demonstrate thankfulness and patriotism. Yes, I still think of my military veteran comrades who died, some from old age, others haunted by the wars they brought back home. But the Iraqi families’ pain I witnessed demands I honor all who died in U.S. wars, especially civilians caught in the crossfire between combatants. Further, after meeting an Iraqi veteran who was my “enemy” in the Persian Gulf War, I think about the estimated 30,000-plus reported Iraqi deaths in that war, some of whom I had a hand in killing. Those enemy combatants had families who loved them, just like me. And like me, they followed the orders of their political leaders and did their duty. Only by grace am I here today. I must honor that.

And because I can no longer accept that there is no connection between the wars abroad and the violence we face in our communities, I also honor all those killed by violence here at home.

An Arlington West project, a memorial Veterans for Peace members in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, California, set up every Sunday. While most of the symbols are crosses, the Star of David and crescent moons are used to symbolize Jewish and Muslim deaths as well. The red symbolizes 10 deaths, and blue for the person who died that week. (Photo: Michael McPhearson)

I am not asking people to stop having cookouts or taking advantage of Memorial Day sales. If I see something I want and it’s on sale, I will buy it. But I ask you to think more deeply about the day’s meaning. I ask you to contemplate and ask yourself, how can we abolish war? I challenge you to see how wars abroad are connected to what many see as wars at home. 

In the lyrics from Tupac Shakur’s song “Ghetto Gospel,” he wrote, “Before we find world peace, we gotta find peace and end the war on the streets.” He saw the connection. And with the U.S. continuing to be, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” back then because of the U.S. war in Vietnam and now because the U.S. by far dominates global arms sales and no one has dropped as many bombs on other nations in the past 20 years, there is no doubt the violence we export abroad is a result of the violence we practice against each other here at home. 

It is worth noting here that King and Shakur, two men at opposite ends of the spectrum in their lived relationships to violence, were murdered in our country with guns. 

Gene Glazier, a World War II combat veteran medic and friend who died years ago of natural causes, closed many of his talks against war with this statement: “We must honor the dead by protecting the living.” 

People can interpret his words in different ways. From spending time with Gene and listening to his anger about war, I know he was saying we must save lives by finding a way to solve our conflicts other than violence and war. This sounds idealistic because it is. But idealism is one characteristic that separates us from the beast of nature. Striving for a higher purpose and greater good brings out our best. To honor those who died in our name, we must ensure their deaths have a higher meaning than allowing us to live a comfortable material life surrounded by ongoing violence. We must step up and take on the challenge to be better people.

Gold Star mother (center) Cindy Sheehan‘s son Casey Sheehan was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, when his unit was attacked on April 4, 2004. Eugene Glazier, a WWII combat veteran medic, stands to Sheehan’s left, and Mosess Fishman, who fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, sits to Glazier’s left. New York City, New York. November 11, 2005. (Photo: Michael McPhearson)

This Memorial Day, after enjoying your time off with good food and friends, perhaps buying something on sale, and hopefully honoring the dead, reflect on what you can do to make the world more peaceful at home and abroad. Then, go be the peace you want to see in the world.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Michael T. McPhearson is executive director of the Emerald. He’s honored to serve the community by listening, learning, and helping the Emerald grow to sustainability. As co-coordinator of the Ferguson/St. Louis Don’t Shoot Coalition and leading a delegation to support the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he recognizes the critical role of community media for social change. He has testified before Congress and is currently on the American Friends Service Committee Nobel Peace Prize Nominating Task Group and a board member of the ACLU of Washington.

📸 Featured Image: An Arlington West project, a memorial Veterans for Peace members in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, California, set up every Sunday. (Photo: Michael McPhearson)

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