Alan Zendell, Memorial Day, May 31, 2021
I watched the PBS Memorial Day Concert last night. It was a lot like previous concerts, filled with patriotic tributes to Americans lost defending their country in war, with two noticeable differences. One was that because of COVID, last night’s presentation was a technically adept mix of live and virtual presentations and performances. Another was an emphasis on diversity, including a somewhat whitewashed view of the history of our racially segregated armed forces. But this was a celebration of lost heroes, so the producers can be forgiven for looking only at the positive contributions of African American battalions and ignoring the ugly truths that went along with them.
I understand that Memorial Day was intended to remember and honor our military war dead. Yet, it was impossible to ignore the elephant in the room in 2021. Throughout 2020, we were told we were involved in a deadly war. It wasn’t a military conflict, but most responsible leaders and public health experts described the fight to save lives during the pandemic as war nonetheless. Not a war declared by Congress against other nations, but a very real conflict on two major fronts.
One was medical, the urgent struggle to identify the virus and find a way to combat it, first with treatments for those who were infected, and ultimately for a vaccine. Our pharmaceutical researchers developed vaccines in record time, earning our eternal gratitude. Our frontline health workers and first responders were as heroic as any battlefield soldiers in all our wars, putting their own lives on the line to save others. It may not have been a military action, but it was as deadly a war as any armed conflict we ever fought, in fact as deadly as all the military conflicts in the last century combined.
As awful as our wars have been, as much as those who lost their lives defending the rest of us deserved to be honored and revered, it felt odd to me watching tribute after tribute, that no one mentioned the obvious – that invisible elephant – that we lost almost as many innocent Americans to COVID in a single year as soldiers in combat since 1917. Is it fair to talk about all of them in the same context? Perhaps not, but I feel compelled to nevertheless, because those COVID deaths are still very relevant today, and their number is still increasing.
We can argue about whether this or that war was justified or even legal, but the men and women who fought them were only concerned with doing their duty. For me, the most touching moments in last night’s concert were hearing people returning from risking their lives in Vietnam, only to be accosted as if they were criminals by antiwar demonstrators who were unable to distinguish alleged crimes by our political leaders from actions taken in combat by those who were sworn to defend us. That’s also what makes the comparison with the COVID war meaningful.
Had we conducted military operations the way we battled COVID, both our political and military leaders would have left in disgrace. The ugly truth about COVID is that many of our so-called leaders turned their backs on their responsibility to defend innocent American civilians against a scourge from which they couldn’t protect themselves. Politicizing our most recent wars (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq/Afghanistan) divided the country, and in many ways got in the way of achieving our military objectives. But politicizing the war against COVID was an entirely different matter.
Most of the nearly 600,000 Americans who died from COVID didn’t have to. They were condemned to death, and their families to struggle on without them simply because too many of our leaders, starting with Donald Trump and extending down through the ranks at all levels of government had the wrong priorities. Whether it was greed or simple power lust, those who turned common sense public safety measures in to a political football are as guilty as any war criminals of causing civilian deaths.
While it’s understandable that including COVID in our Memorial Day remembrances might have been seen as politically incorrect and in bad taste, excluding those deaths was as disrespectful as ignoring those who died in war. Many people are trying to re-write the history of our war on COVID to suit their own interests, the same ones who are now trying to suppress voting of minority populations. If we ignore the former, we strengthen all the forces trying to undermine our democracy. If that is allowed to continue, we may be mourning the loss of everything we hold dear on some future Memorial Day.