Decoration Day, May 30, was established after the Civil War as a holiday to decorate the graves of our nation’s dead warriors and to lift up hopes for an end to the cruelties of war. Today it is called Memorial Day, and is celebrated on the last Monday of May.
Historically, Americans are a people of humane sentiment: we care for our children, families and neighbors, and we value kindness, cooperation and mutual respect. We think of ourselves as humanitarians, taking care of the poor and sick; we avoid cruelty and prefer peaceful political resolutions to conflict. Most of us earnestly desire an end to all war and violence.
But few of us are pacifists. Our culture accepts the coercion of deadly force as a political necessity to maintain order and lawfulness, and we expect our young people to take up arms on our behalf, either by conscription or as volunteers. As a nation we generally approve of using the means of violence for the political ends of constraining and punishing wrongdoers. We mostly embrace uncritically the theory of war proposed around 1830 by Carl von Clauswitz: war is the continuation of politics by other means.
In the 20th Century those ‘other means’ became much more violent and fearsome. The United States led the world in designing weapons to inflict terrible and terrifying damage to humans and human societies -- nuclear devices to incinerate entire cities, and agents to defoliate and make uninhabitable entire countrysides. Napalm was formulated to bind fire to human skin; claymore mines filled with metal cubes are intended to deliver as much damage and pain as possible to human flesh.
In the last year of that century the United States and its allies bombed Kosovo for the political/humanitarian goal of stopping the genocide of Albanians by Serbs. Few were surprised. Nations with cultures that accept war as a continuation of politics, that command sophisticated and deadly technologies, that respect no international code of law, and are guided by no coherent common morality see nothing wrong with using bombs to stop genocide.
By the turn of the 21st Century, Americans had learned to praise as "brave guerrillas" those who used violence for political ends we approved, and to condemn as "terrorists" those whose agendas we disliked. After the attacks of 9/11 we were persuaded to support terrorism against anyone identified as a terrorist. We allowed our military to attack Iraq, a nation that was not responsible for 9/11 and couldn’t defend itself, let alone attack us; we let Afghanistan be ravaged without bringing bin Laden to justice; we tolerated -- even encouraged -- brutality in our prisons and have been naively surprised to learn that the Bush administration paid private companies to export that brutality to Iraq.
It is not reassuring that, after two thousand years of Christian teachings and two hundred years of democracy, many Americans still believe our political goals are best served by means of war. It is not encouraging that the best we can do to control genocide or terrorism is to bomb civilians, nor is it heartening to learn that our most successful and powerful polities are run by knaves, crooks and fools. How can we ever do things better? If the good guys are just as bad as the bad guys, what hope is there for humanity?
This Memorial Day, as we confront fresh graves of young soldiers lost in a needless war, is there any way to honor their memory, and lift up our hopes for a better world?
First, we have to stop asking what we should do about Iraq, as if it were our flock of chickens or a Kindergarten class under our tutelage, unfit by nature or too immature to govern itself. The answer is clear: we must get out, and get on our knees and beg forgiveness of the Iraqis and God for decimating their country. We do have obligations to Iraq: to offer humanitarian assistance and help with reconstruction..
But Iraq is not our problem. Our problem is ourselves, and what our nation has become under the Bush administration. Our problem is the power we have given to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, the money we have let them spend, the policies we have tolerated from them, and their lies we have left unchallenged.
Our problem is the way we think about, talk about, and act on our common goals. As long as we accept war and torture as means for achieving political goals, as long as we try to discipline other nations with force and fail to discipline ourselves by demanding accountability of our President and Congress, as long as we believe that our military and economic power makes us superior to other nations, we will be decorating graves on Memorial Days forever..
Our fallen soldiers deserve better than that. Our children and grandchildren, and all the children of the world deserve better than that.
And we can do better. We can take up the converse of Clauswitz’ principle -- politics is the continuation of war by other means -- and start this Memorial Day to instruct candidates for President and Congress about our ideals and hopes for a better world.
Memorial Day 2004 will end on November 2, when we replace warmakers with political leaders committed to humane, respectful policies, for ourselves, and for all the children of the world.
Caroline Arnold (email@example.com) served 12 years on the staff of Senator John Glenn and is now active in civic and environmental affairs in Kent, Ohio.