Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Memento mori

Much like not knowing that Easter was about Jesus until I was about 25, I wasn't raised understanding that Memorial Day was a day to remember men and women who died serving in our military.

Why, I wonder, why didn't I know this?

My maternal grandmother's older brother was killed on a Navy boat in WWI. I had great-uncles who fought and nearly died in WWII. My mom's brother was in the Army. My parents had a military wedding. My dad was a navigator in the Air Force, and though he went to Vietnam in a non-military capacity, his flight school buddies were flying overhead, dropping bombs. His brother was a career Marine, and his son Mike, named after my dad, followed his Marine footsteps.

It's not like we had no connection to the military. And even if we hadn't, we wouldn't have the country we do and the freedoms we have if countless men and women hadn't fought for them.

Me, I have always technically been American, in that my parents were American and my dad was in the Foreign Service. So even though I was born in India, I had an American passport basically from the get-go.

And yet it took me until I was in my 30s to feel American. To feel good living here, to feel like I fit in, and to appreciate the positives of being from this country.

(And for the longest time, what I knew about the military consisted of what I'd learned from the cute Marines posted in Delhi.)

And this brings me to Memorial Day, which for any non-Americans reading, was yesterday.

America is a flawed country, because humans are flawed. We have some terrible laws, and some terrible politicians spouting lies that many in this country believe. Internationally, we poke our nose in everyone else's business, and we throw our weight around.  Domestically, we regularly see tragedies such as the recent one in Santa Barbara. After Connecticut, after all those children - little, innocent children - were killed, nothing changed in terms of gun control.

And so we beat on...

Post-Santa Barbara, people are once again angry and upset. The problem is that we have a culture of misogyny that promotes violence against women. The problem is that guns are too accessible and the NRA lobby is too strong. The problem is that we don't spend enough money on mental illness.

There are very public debates on social media about what the problem is, and what needs to change.

And here is the thing about the US, and one of the things that makes it such an amazing country: we have these debates in public, without fear of retribution. Journalists are not going to be persecuted by the government for things they write. We believe that we can effect change. Sometimes we do.

We do not have wage equality. Sexism abounds. Racism abounds. Groups such as the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church are free to promote hate.

And even if we loathe what they are pushing, and I personally wouldn't mind if all of their members were rounded up by terrorists and taken to the woods, never to be seen again, that freedom is huge and it is rare.

We have public schools - not all of them great, I admit, but still - free and available to all.  Not only are your girls not going to be abducted for going to school, it is mandatory for them to attend.

We don't have paid maternity leave, and yes, this is a travesty, and it puts us behind quite a number of other countries. But we do have professional opportunities for women that you don't find in many other countries.

We all expect potable water to come out of our taps. We expect electricity. We expect not just passable, but well-maintained roads. We expect a government that can not only regulate its currency, but will respond immediately and effectively in the wake of an emergency.

We expect them because, as far as we know, we've always had them. When there is a disruption, we are up in arms.

What I'm saying, perhaps not well, is that there are so many things in America that are so easy to take for granted. But as a woman, I still feel lucky to be American. I don't know about now, but even 10 years ago in Italy you could still put "attractive young woman" as part of your criteria in a job advertisement. I don't know that it was different in France.

War has existed as long as humans, and I'm not so naive as to think we will get to a place where we can all coexist. I was opposed to going into Iraq, but even so, I thank members of the military for their service.

If you believe in something enough to be willing to die for it, and that something is keeping your country safe, I believe you deserve to be thanked and remembered.

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