25 May 2009

Awkward Thoughts on Memorial Day

All Posts No Comments

Yesterday in church I was very uncomfortable. Because it was Memorial Day weekend, and because I am in a pretty conservative area (replete with McCain-Palin and “Nobama” bumper stickers), it was not surprising when the pastor took several minutes to talk about military veterans. I am truly not trying to rile up those who think it entirely appropriate to shower praise on people who fought in various wars, but even so I think it is a very dangerous custom we have in this country.

The first thing that struck me as very odd was the video they showed after the “praise and worship” (i.e. the music in the opening) was over. It had a picture of a fluttering American flag and the words scrolled on the screen to tell us that since 1775, some 1.3 million American soldiers had made the ultimate sacrifice for…(pause)…freedom.

But hang on a second. That number includes the military deaths from both sides of the Civil War (or the War Between the States as many prefer to call it). If you want to say 1.3 million Americans made the ultimate sacrifice because they all thought they were fighting for freedom, OK that’s more sensible. But it really doesn’t make sense to me, to say that both sides of the Civil War were in fact fighting for freedom. When I was in college and had a bunch of free time, I think I dreamed up some scenarios in which you could have two sides of a huge war both be objectively “in the right.” But that clearly wasn’t what happened in the United States from 1861-1865. You can argue easily enough that both sides were wrong in a given war (or the Civil War in particular), but it’s very hard to say both sides were right.

Then the true awkwardness began. The pastor started by asking if anyone in the congregation had served in the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, and a few guys stood up and everyone of course started clapping. But I couldn’t do it, because (a) I was reminded that contrary to the pastor’s usage and plain common sense, we technically are not “at war” with anybody right now, nor have we been since 1945, and (b) the official reason given for the invasion of Iraq turned out to be, at best, a gigantic string of mistakes, and at worst, outright lies by our political leaders.

I am not going to hold it against an 18-year-old who signed up for the Army and then doesn’t desert his buddies even when (in my opinion) it becomes clear that the institution he is serving is being led either by fools or liars. In fact, alongside with Iraqi civilians who have been killed, I think young American soldiers are among the biggest victims of the deception by our political elite regarding Iraq. Yet even so, I’m not going to clap for the people who participated in a struggle of which Pat Tillman commented, “This war is so f—ing illegal.” (I am not here getting into the distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Those who know me personally, know that I am the furthest thing from confrontational. I was not trying to “make a statement” by refraining from applauding, and in fact I did my best to be “looking around” at all the people standing up so that at worst it would simply look as if I were lazy or spacey. And I must admit that I finally did break down and start clapping when the pastor got to World War II, and one or two real old timers slowly stood up. But for those guys, most of us were clapping just because hey, good job for making it out to church and standing up on your own power! (Also, at least a United States base–not part of the actual country, mind you–was attacked before millions of Americans started killing and dying in World War II.)

It is no coincidence that we have all been trained since birth to pay the utmost homage to people who died while carrying out the government’s orders to kill other human beings. Yes, ultimately it is the politicians who decide whether to deploy US forces in a truly defensive way, or whether to instead implement what is, for all intents and purposes, a global American empire. The politicians will never relinquish that tool on their own, unless the American public stops blessing it with cheers and tears, and unless millions of young American men (and now women) stop volunteering to kill for the government.

One last point in this Memorial Day essay: Look at the relative amounts of military expenditures by various world powers. Isn’t it just possible that, in addition to the thousand-and-one other things about which you know perfectly well that the politicians have lied to you, that they are lying too about the purpose of the American war machine? You know full well that the government squanders hundreds of billions annually on education and social programs, and it doesn’t even achieve its ostensible goals with such profligacy. When 19 guys with box cutters can take down the Twin Towers and hit the Pentagon, at what point do Americans stop reflexively “supporting the troops”?

Military Expenditures, 2007

Comments are closed.