Celebrating Memorial Day in an age of military aggression

The best way to honor our fallen heroes is to make sure there aren’t any more of them.

Today I honor our war dead, but I’m mad as hell that our leaders, corrupt and sociopathic as they so often are, have killed so many without cause. I’m enraged that some of these deaths are regarded by our society as less worthy of honor than others. And I’m livid with the certain knowledge that plans are afoot, even as we celebrate this holiday, to send more young men and women off to die in dishonorable, even criminal actions.

Perhaps we will keep this in mind as we enter election season, which will be rife with scoundrels wrapped in flags, scoundrels whose idea of honor and patriotism is sending other people’s children off to die in service to corrupt financial or bigoted religious agendas.

Memorial Day pisses me off worse than any other holiday we have. I doubt I can say it any better than I did a couple years ago, nor am I likely to muster the snark I did last year, and I won’t be going so far as question what species our leaders are, like I did in 2007. Still, I feel obligated to offer a few words about the rage this day evokes in me, and I’ll apologize in advance if I’m more scattered than usual.

Today we celebrate the sacrifice of those who died in military service to our nation, and as we do so it’s important that we pause to think deeply about what it means to give your life to save others, to die for something larger than yourself. We toss off these phrases so casually, so frequently, so unthinkingly that they have devolved into little more than dollar store clichés. We might justifiably argue that when we allow these kinds of words to be so cheapened it’s probably about as bad as if we didn’t stop to mark the occasion at all.

For starters, do you know how many people have died in our wars? The number is sobering. Have a look at the Wikipedia page, which lists casualties for conflicts you never heard of before, and especially note this table.

Rank War Deaths Deaths
per Day
US Population in First
Year of War
Deaths per Population
1 American Civil War 625,000 420 31,443,000 1.988% (1860)
2 World War II 405,399 297 133,402,000 0.307% (1940)
3 World War I 116,516 279 103,268,000 0.110% (1920)
4 Vietnam War 58,209 11 179,323,175 (1960) 0.030% (1970)
5 Korean War 36,516 45 151,325,000 0.020% (1950)
6 American Revolutionary War 25,000 11 2,500,000 0.899% (1780)
7 War of 1812 15,000 15 8,000,000 0.207% (1810)
8 Mexican–American War 13,283 29 21,406,000 0.057% (1850)
9 War on Terror 6,717 1.57 294,043,000 0.002% (2010)
10 Philippine–American War 4,196 3.8 72,129,001 0.006% (1900)

The magnitude of the body count feeds the frustration I have with the way in which we spout ritualistic nonsense about the military. We all “support our troops,” of course. We do so by spending a few pennies on a ribbon magnet (made in China) for the trunk of the car. And we share a meme that somebody else made on Facebook. And we get misty eyed when some athlete or celebrity or politician or drunk relative waxes sentimental. And we feel better about ourselves. We have supported the troops by feeling patriotic for a few seconds.

Take those damned NBA PSA you’ve probably seen if you’ve been watching the playoffs. While I don’t doubt people’s goodwill or sincerity, the truth is that most of what they’re spouting is pure tripe.

Our soldiers and sailors are out there risking their lives, absolutely. But they aren’t doing it “to protect our freedom” or to “keep us safe.” Those are statements of purpose, and it is important to understand that purpose is decided not by the soldier, but by those who deploy the soldier. And increasingly, those in power have deployed our young men and women, placing them in harm’s way, for reasons that have nothing to do with our freedom or our safety.

It’s been a long time since our freedom was threatened by an external force. Our freedom is certainly in jeopardy, but the threat is posed almost exclusively by our own government and the corporations to which it reports. If you want our soldiers protecting your freedom, you need to point them toward the offices of the NSA or the corporate headquarters of the companies that cooperate with them.

Safety? You’re more likely to be boot-stomped and tear-gassed by a police officer while engaging in constitutionally protected free speech than you are to be blown up by al Qaeda. Read up on the militarization of our police here in the US and ask yourself which is a bigger threat to your freedom and safety – the blue shield or an Afghan warlord? (A warlord, by the way, who’s largely armed with weaponry we gave him.)

This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of people around the world who’d like to end us. No question – there are evil motherfuckers out there who, as they say back home, “need killin’.” The problem is that when you view the big picture and the long term, the danger they pose to us is of our own making. Decades and decades of short-sighted, heavy-handed imperialist foreign policy created many of these enemies, and we now find ourselves in an ugly game of tit-for-tat, where everything they do in response to what we do forces us to do some more. It’s a self-replicating downward spiral, and our military action is the best recruiting that our terrorist enemies have going for them.

If I might oversimplify to make a point, there are good wars and bad wars. There are, without question, times that marshaling our collective might and stamping out a threat overseas is not only the necessary thing to do, it’s the right and moral thing to do. Perhaps World War II was the iconic example – the question isn’t whether we should have gotten involved, but whether we should have done so sooner.

But for every WW2 there’s a Vietnam, or worse, an Iraq, where so far nearly 4,500 Americans have died. Why? Iraq didn’t attack us. They weren’t planning to attack us. Beyond maybe bombing an embassy they had no capability to attack us. They were in no way involved in 9/11. They did not have WMDs. They posed zero threat to the health or well being of the average American citizen.

And yet today we honor the sacrifice of 4,488 servicemen and women who laid down their lives for … the vanity of our corrupt leaders?

This is why those goddamned NBA PSAs make me so spitting mad. I have to listen to a bunch of athletes who couldn’t find Iraq on a map parroting the ritualistic company line about freedom and safety. What I want is for one of them to stand up and say that the best way we can honor our fallen military heroes is by making sure that we aren’t getting any more Americans killed for no good reason.

In other words, Memorial Day is all about ambivalence for me. I absolutely respect and honor the sacrifice of our war dead, but at the same time I rage against the cynical policies that get them killed and the chickenhawk leaders who are so willing to wage war from behind the security of their desks. I hate that there’s even a discussion to be had about how heroic you can be if you’re serving in an unjust war. I hate that those who died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are viewed by some as less noble than those who died on Omaha Beach.

And I’m keenly aware that every time a soldier dies, for whatever reason, the flag-waving, Bible-thumping ideology machine kicks into high gear, juicing the emotions of the public and building support for still more military intervention.

It’s as though our decision makers all own stock in a body bag manufacturer.

I understand that for many people, it’s hard to separate the policy from the soldier who serves it – hell, it’s hard for me, too. Our news apparatus doesn’t help. The very nature of war tragedy forces us to look at the scenes of the aftermath on the 24/7 corporate media war hype machine. These stories rarely pull back and cut over to the guy in the nice suit behind the nice desk whose greed and arrogance was ultimately responsible for the ultimate sacrifice. I get it. We’re a nation that demands simple answers to complex questions. We’re a nation of feeling instead of thinking.

Some people will read this and conclude that I hate ‘merica or that I don’t “support our troops,” whatever that means.

So let me see if I can boil it down to an easily digestible sound bite. How about this: The best way to honor our fallen soldiers is to ask yourself what you can do to make sure there aren’t any more of them.

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