One thing many religions have in common is the tension between learning from the past and living in it.
The Bible’s Book of Proverbs, for example, repeatedly explains how the righteous person rises from past stumbles, accepts instruction and learns to see danger and act wisely.
Buddhists also talk about “wise attention” —learning from mistakes while moving forward, not dwelling in them.
Meanwhile, voices as disparate as Confucius and Germany’s Otto von Bismarck agree that the “school of experience” is such an expensive learning method, only a fool would choose it.
We must learn from the mistakes of the past without living in the past. Which brings us to Monday’s holiday, which is all about the past: Memorial Day.
I was in the Coast Guard during the Vietnam War, and my father served on an ammunition ship in the Pacific during the Second World War.
I was never in combat. I was on Lake Michigan, servicing buoys in the summer and breaking ice in the winter. But hoo, boy, do I ever know that “I just want to go home” feeling every service member gets sooner or later.
Frankly, in honoring combat veterans, I’m not sure “Thank you for your service” gets it. I’ve listened to enough (including my own father) to feel as though no words can compensate for the fear, horror and anguish of combat.
That’s where, it seems to me, learning from the past without living in the past becomes crucial.
This month marks 75 years since Nazi Germany collapsed and the Second World War ended in Europe. Looking through photos of concentration camps and postwar Berlin, we see that Hitler’s war was a catastrophe for all involved.
Yet I see news photos today of Americans with swastika tattoos, waving Nazi flags. Meanwhile, in Germany, where the swastika is illegal, white nationalist demonstrators wave American Confederate flags. That sends multiple messages, none of which makes me feel good.
Memorial Day is an important holiday, not just a “day off.” (Given the COVID-19 virus, too many of us are getting too many days off anyway.)
War is both a political and also a deeply religious issue. Therefore, the attitudes that cause wars are also political and, yes, religious.
To put it a different way, are we honoring the Americans who fought Naziism when their grandchildren sport Nazi insignia or wave Nazi flags? Where’s the “honor thy father and mother” in that?
Looking back at the war of my own youth, the Vietnam War, it was over before I really decided what I thought about it. It was a mistake. I truly believe it was an honest mistake. But it was a mistake nonetheless that got 58,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese killed.
We need to learn from both wars. I’m not a pacifist. I’m not Roman Catholic, either. But Catholic “Just War Theory” is worth studying. Very few of the wars people get into are ever justified, looking at the reasons behind them or the outcomes.
To me, if we really want to honor Memorial Day, there are two lessons we need to take from wars of the past.
The first (as Catholic Just War Theory tells us) is not to go to war until every other option has been exercised.
The other is to be very wary of the kind of racism and ultra-nationalism that brought Hitler to power. They weren’t destroyed; in fact, they’re returning with a vengeance.
If we really want to honor the service of our military people, the righteous option is to keep them as safe and as sparingly employed as possible.