Commentary

Distorted Memory

In the email Head of School John Palfrey sent to the student body, he called for celebration of Memorial Day out of “deep and enduring respect for those who gave their lives in service to the United States.” Across the country, Memorial Day calls for remembrance of those who have died in the American military services. The holiday and the protest on Monday calling for greater observance thereof, however, prioritized certain groups and voices inequitably.

On Monday, the journalist Terrell J. Starr started the Twitter hashtag “#BlackSoldiersKilledByCops.” Already, thousands have added images and descriptions of black Americans who chose to risk their lives for the sake of their country, only to be killed by agents of that same country. It feels immediately apparent to me that the fate of these veterans – death by police brutality – does not honor them with “deep and enduring respect.”
The protests on Monday failed to draw any attention to the complexities of who we honor and how we honor them. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center established that racial minorities continue to be overrepresented in the military. For example, while only 15 percent of non-military women in the United States are black, 31 percent of active-duty military women are black. In the Gulf War, African-Americans alone comprised almost 30 percent of troops, according to Defense Department statistics. Likewise, Amy Lutz’s study with Syracuse University found that throughout American history, including the modern day, members of the working and middle classes disproportionately enlist in the military. The American paradox suggests that the veterans, the people whose lives I think are most in need of memorialization, are also largely members of oppressed and disadvantaged groups.

While I have the utmost respect for the intentions and desires of the brave students who chose to protest, careful and conscientious observance of Memorial Day also requires analysis of ourselves. The Heritage Foundation’s research shows that the vast majority of recruits to the military don’t have college degrees; they enroll directly after high school. Conversely, most Andover students enroll in college, bypassing the traditional military narrative. There is a disconnect between the respect and honor we seek to impart on Memorial Day and the reality that for the most part, Andover students are less likely to become veterans than students in less privileged communities.

Moreover, Andover is a global community: our student body consists of approximately 9 percent international students. Their families and communities, too, are shaped by the loss of loved ones in the military, as well as by American military campaigns. Yet some protesters at the sit-in paraded American flags and blasted country music, reducing the holiday to just a celebration of American jingoism, rather than a general homage of fallen soldiers. It is paramount that we devote time and energy to the grave sacrifices made by the military, but recognition of those who have died serving in our military also requires a parallel recognition of those whose communities and families have been affected by the violent legacy of American military action. We cannot conflate careful and grave respect for those who have sacrificed their lives for the country with respect for the causes they served.

These complexities of identity were mostly absent from both the protests and programming on Monday. By virtue of its international and intentionally diverse nature, Andover lies at the intersection of complicated ideas about what it means to be American. Ultimately, thinking critically about the roles of race, class and colonization in the American military and honoring veterans aren’t distinct operations. One cannot exist without the other. To actually honor those who commit service to this country, we need to recognize the role of identity, inequality and politics in our memorial services.

May 28, 2015