Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017: Do War Dead Validate the Actions of Presidents?

David Granlund/2010
Today The New York Times has published a meditation by U.S. veterans of the wars in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They are reading from two war plays by Sophocles.  It's about the psychic pain suffered by survivors of war. It's not about heroism. I like this tribute. It puts the emphasis in the right place, the soldiers. Soldiers being introspective sets a good example for the rest of us.

Mostly, of course, Memorial Day is not about introspection. We celebrate our war dead as if there were something inherently virtuous about being dead, and that there is something inherently virtuous about any war in which we ask our young men to die. We give their families a gold star. "To every Gold Star family, God is with you," said Trump at Arlington cemetery today.  He delivered the line with slimey disingenuousness as only he can do. "Your loved ones are with Him," he intones. "They died in war so that we can live in peace..., free from fear and this horrible oppression," says Trump. What fear and what oppression he does not say. "Let us pledge to tell the stories of Robert, Chris, Andrew, and all of America's fallen warriors, today, and for the next one thousand years," he concludes, invoking the Holy Roman Empire and Hitler's fantasy of a millennia of thuggish, Aryan, will-to-power-hegemony. And of course he is not telling the stories of Robert, Chris, and Andrew at all. No not at all.

"Their duty was to serve; our duty is to remember," said Mike Pence. But to remember what?

We like to remember our war dead as abstract paragons of virtue: heroic, selfless, and good. And because all our fallen soldiers were heroic, selfless, and good, it follows that all our causes must have been heroic, selfless, and good. We will remember them thus "for a thousand years."

For Gold Star families to be pandered to by Trump in such shallow terms does not honor the fallen or their families. To indulge in a fantasy that all our fallen soldiers were heroic, selfless and good, fighting only just causes, honors neither Gold Star families, nor the country.

Here is the Army's explanation of the term "Gold Star family."  It's about notifying immediate community--it's not about political pandering for war or about the thousand-year nonsense of politicians who study Hitler speeches.
       "The term Gold Star family is a modern reference that comes from the Service Flag. These flags/banners were first flown by families during World War I. The flag included a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces of the United States, during any period of war or hostilities in which the armed forces of the United States were engaged. If that loved one died, the blue star was replaced by a gold star. This allowed members of the community to know the price that the family had paid in the cause of freedom."
The sacrifices these families make are real. The pain is real. The carnage is real. The scars are real.
  • 25,000        Revolutionary War 
  • 20,000        War of 1812-15
  • 13,000        Mexican American War (1846-48) 
  • 625,000      American Civil War 
  • 117,000      World War I (1917-18) 
  • 405,000      World War II (1941-45) 
  • 37,000        Korean War (1950-53)  
  • 58,000        Vietnam War (1955-75)  
  • 2,400          Afghanistan (2001-14)  
  • 4,500          Iraq (2003-15)
Those are the war dead from our deadliest conflicts. But these number don't begin to tell the story of the traumatized, the wounded, the shattered, the families affected.

Do we celebrate these fallen boys (mostly boys) because they were heroic, selfless, and good, and because they always fought for truth, justice, and freedom? Or do we remember them in order to reflect on the  deadly march of history and time? To reflect on the tragedy and price exacted by the hubris of politicians.

When we think of the roughly 7,000 young men and women who have given their life serving in our armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 10's of thousands of lives negatively affected by these two wars, do we think of these soldiers as heroes laying the foundation of a thousand year realm, as Trump suggests, or do we stop and think twice: was the price worth it? Was the cause just? Was it necessary? Were our leaders wise? What harm have we inflicted on others?

Do we trust Donald Trump's wisdom when he launches missile strikes "over the most beautiful chocolate cake that you've ever seen." Do war dead validate the actions of presidents?

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles


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