March 25th was National Medal of Honor Day (MOH), a federal observance commemorating the recipients of our country’s highest honor for giving the highest measure of heroic service and sacrifice. Enacted by law in December 1861 and first awarded during the Civil War, there are only slightly over 3500 recipients of this medal. I have had the honor of encountering two MOH recipients during my Navy career, one was a Marine and the other a fellow sailor, both having served during the Vietnam War. I can tell you that it is something profound — even transcendent — when meeting someone who has sacrificed so much during their service to this country. As I reflect on how this country remembers service and sacrifice, I have observed that a chasm exists in this country between those who choose to serve in the military and those who don’t serve because this country conceptualizes patriotism through the lens of military service. Part of this is due to the fact that fewer people serve in the military in comparison to previous generations. The Council on Foreign Relations reports 1.3 million people are currently on active duty, which accounts for less than one-half of 1 percent of the total U.S. population. For context, contrast this with the 3.5 million active duty members serving during the height of the Vietnam War, nearly 2 percent of the US population at that time. Proximity from military service and, as well, the culture of service and sacrifice inherent to military service creates a space in our national memory that can be exploited which is why national memory through commemoration and memorialization is an important discussion here. If most of the population does not have a personal connection to military service, then military service and the military culture can easily become mythologized. Mythology obfuscates the true history of service and the culture of military service and sacrifice leaving supporters in the position to be manipulated by political and social interests constructed within cultural normativity centered on whiteness.
National commemorations — holidays, observances, and the culture of support for military service — have been mythologized and politically exploited to benefit cultural normativity. I don’t just mean the performative culture of stating “Thank you for your service,” which now almost seems perfunctory when addressing veterans and misses the nuances of national memory. I mean all too often cultural normativity affects how we as a nation remember and commemorate service and sacrifice. Cultural normativity centers whiteness at the expense of Blackness. This centering facilitates a certain amnesia. For example, the Tuskegee Airmen are lauded for their fight on two fronts — in the air against Nazi Germany and on the ground in Italy and North Africa — but how many people understand that while the fighter groups were fighting in Europe, the bomber group members were fighting for equality at Freeman Field in Indiana? Moreover, the 761st tank battalion — a Black unit requested to serve by General George Patton who famously stated to them, “They say it is patriotic to die for your country. Well, let’s see how many patriots we can make out of those German sonsofbitches.” Blacks have been present on the battlefield from the past to contemporary times, many of whom have earned the right to feted for their ultimate sacrifice. To wit: The list of recipients of the MOH, maintained by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, reveals there are no Black recipients during the period including the War on Terror (the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan). However, one Black service member, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Alwyn C. Cashe was initially awarded the Silver Star for his sacrifice during the Iraq War; he saved several of his soldiers from a burning vehicle destroyed by an improvised explosive device despite having burns over 72 percent of his body. The path to upgrading his Silver Star medal — the medal he was initially awarded — to the MOH required a waiver of the five-year statute of limitations for consideration of SFC Cashe’s actions. Although then President Trump signed the legislation in December awarding SFC Cashe the MOH, his family has yet to receive an official ceremony. What our nation remembers from the period of time from December 2020 and January 2021 are incidents related to white grievances: attacks by the Proud Boys and debunked claims about the last election which culminated in an attempted insurrection on January 6th, 2021. What was lost — what was neither politically or socially expedient to the leadership of our country — was to honor a brave Black soldier. The trajectory of history for Black servicemembers in this nation is made up of stories of bravery and courage lost to time because it was more expedient to center whiteness in the national narrative. I choose to fight this by suggesting something different — by showing that Black lives matter.
The month of May serves as the starting point of an arc on are calendars — from May through July and ending in November — where America will honor our veterans who sacrificed their lives during their military service; we will honor the emancipation of of enslaved people; we will celebrate our nation’s independence; and, we will honor all who served in our nation’s armed forces. Beginning with Memorial Day, a day we commemorate those who have died during military service, this year would be an important and critical time to reflect and to establish a re-centering of our national memory regarding service and sacrifice to include Black lives more than they have considered previously. As a nation, we have an opportunity to reimagine how we conceptualize American patriotism. To promote unity, we can start honoring not only those who sacrificed through military service but those who have served this nation as the descendants of enslaved people who loved a country that still has troubling loving them back. In a season of commemorative remembrances, our nation could honor our fallen on Memorial Day, promote restorative justice on Juneteenth, and invoke the memory of Frederick Douglass by reflecting upon the true values of this nation on July 4th starting with an award celebration bestowing the Congressional Medal of Honor to the family of SFC Alwyn C. Cashe. Let us all commemorate — remember and reflect upon – that Black lives have mattered throughout this nation’s history, Black lives matter today, and Black lives will matter in the future.
Thank you, SFC Alwyn Crendall Cashe, SSGT LaDavid Johnson, and all the other Black people who have served but are not honored for their service and their sacrifice.