Another Memorial Day is behind us, and as the memory of the long weekend is carried away with the recycle bin full of beer cans, we hope, as we always hope, that we carry with us something of the occasion besides a few extra pounds. It is not enough. It is not nearly enough to pause for a few moments once a year to remember sacrifice, to click on a poppy or put plastic flowers on a grave, even when we do so in all sincerity.
My father served in the South Pacific in 1944 and ’45 and saw action at Luzon, the Solomon Islands and Leyte. He survived torpedoes, Kamikaze pilots and Halsey’s Typhoon, and then came home to take his place with the strongest and most productive generation of Americans to date. Like many of his peers he carried his ghosts close to his chest, and never spoke of the horrors of war until much later in life. Many sacrificed all, but the ones who made it home sacrificed youth and innocence. They carried the burden of memory quietly and without complaint for the rest of their lives, because they knew what it had purchased, and they would do it all again.
How many more have sacrificed since that greatest of all conflicts? How many still carry the ghosts of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan? But what comfort do they have in knowing what was purchased by their own sacrifice? It’s not so clear, is it? Since WWII we have had no clear victories, no great uniting causes.
Soldiers have fought and died bravely. Millions have served honorably and given their own youth and innocence. We tell them they are defending freedom, and we try to believe that ourselves. But believing that requires an ever lengthening leap of faith, and there is a nagging suspicion that sometimes our belief requires the suspension of reason itself.
Our better angels tell us that all humans are fundamentally the same. That idea is at the root of all that we believe as Americans. Conservative Christians tell us that the soul has no color. Spiritually minded liberals celebrate diversity and inclusion. So on this seminal issue we are all in agreement.
Building on that, we must assume that the vast majority of humanity wants the same thing that we want: A roof over our heads, a modicum of comfort, and a safe and peaceful life for our family and friends. We want the freedom to choose our path as we see fit, with the caveat that we may do as we please as long as we harm no one.
Which brings us back to the question of defending freedom. If we bother to think about it at all, it’s quite a puzzle to understand why someone halfway around the globe would want to abandon the struggle to survive and provide for their own family in order to come here and steal our barbecue grills.
But it’s not that simple, is it? We are not the only ones being told that we are defending our way of life from hostile enemies. In fact, for much of the world, we are the enemy. Millions of people have been convinced by their own leaders that Americans wish to leave our own shores in order to travel halfway around the world and steal someone else’s livelihood.
Of course we know that’s not true and that we, as Americans, hold the moral high ground. It’s just that it’s difficult to make our case when there are no, for example, Libyan soldiers stationed at the edge of town, but there are, in fact, over 1000 American military bases scattered around the world, particularly in areas rich in natural resources and fossil fuels.
In just a few paragraphs here, we have mirrored the history of the world from the very first empire to our own. Average people who want nothing more than to live out their lives in peace are frightened, cajoled, threatened, or inspired by patriotic fervor to take up arms against strangers far away from home.
Congress, where less than 20% of its members are veterans, just authorized the spending of almost $800 billion in American treasure to continue defending our freedom. For 60 years, since nuclear weapons were developed, the government has made plans for its own survival in the event of a nuclear holocaust. We are not included in those plans. Or if you want to look on the other side of the world, when was the last time a mullah blew himself up rather than sending some hopeless and deluded youth to do it?
But we never seem to get it. War is easy when the leaders who send young people to die do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions. War is easy when there is profit for the people who rule the leadership.
Perhaps on Memorial Day, we need to do more than honor the sacrifice of those who served. Perhaps we need to keep in mind those who, without honor, caused the sacrifice to be made.