To mark the anniversary of the death of a veteran, the United States Government sends out a framed “certificate” like the one pictured above.
My father was proud of his service, but he was not a hero decorated for valor or a high-ranking officer, his experience of combat was limited (quite more than enough at that, he would say), and, more to the point, the war in which he fought was won by a self-consciously democratic nation: No reason why this later commemorative message should be anything other than “government issue”: That it makes a good first impression and brings back fond memories of Dad is good enough for us, anyway. So what if they happened to spelled our family name wrong, without capitalizing the “L” in MacLeod? “MacLeod” may be the most common of Scottish names, but the USG is the USG. If the Nazis had won, maybe their commemorations would have been perfect, but they didn’t win.
The signature stands out, and Dad in his last years may have been Obama-deranged enough to dislike the certificate on that basis alone. In his earlier years, I believe he would have been more accepting. The ink seems a bit thick, and I will assume until and unless informed otherwise that it was done by “autopen.”
The most interesting thing to me about the document is, however, its sacralized language, not its production values. It recognizes “devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country.” The negotiation of plural and singular from the United States which “honors” to the “nation” that awards for service to “our country,” before finally returning to the United States, reflects a familiar and very American problematic. In short, it’s not entirely clear who or what is doing the awarding, but each of the various named collective entities seems to represent something slightly different, almost a different identity or sense of identity or mood. The two sentences and signature together amount to a cloud of patriotic signifiers whose combined import is to be intuited rather than processed rationally.
Yet if we do not know exactly who or what is awarding the certificate on behalf of exactly whom or what, or what for that matter the certificate certifies, exactitude may not be available to us: After all we are dealing with something rather mysterious, with a “consecration.” The word and its variants are rarely used or seen other than in relation to Lincoln, but there is one at the center of this document. The undebatable assertion is that the citizen soldier – the conscript – or his service, or his “self” through his “devotion,” belongs or came to belong to the realm of sacred things, to facts of the nation or country that are more than merely political.
The sacred essence of the American state is not a common topic of discussion, but the state or nation or country itself, or we ourselves, on behalf of itself or on behalf of ourselves, deems or deem it the proper topic in relation to the final questions.