Memorial Day – the origins of which stem from Decoration Day in 1868 which recognized the Union soldiers who had perished – is a day of lost opportunities. No, I’m not referring to consumers missing out on store sales and the advertising hoopla by television marketeers who have ravaged that special day in their unseemly pursuit of profits. Rather, I am speaking of additional ways of commemorating Memorial Day that provide much-needed context of the sacrifices for present and future generations.
With all the different Memorial Day events and vast media spaces (broadcast, cable and social media), surely there is room for such elaborations, unlike in days past, which were limited to local Memorial Day parades.
First, soldiers are not all of one mind regarding where and why they fought. As anybody who has been in the armed forces knows, soldiers can see through the difference between wars of defense and wars of Empire. Despite the war propaganda and censoriousness of their inferior political superiors, a large majority of U.S. soldiers in Iraq wanted us out of there in 2006. This professional poll, taken in the field in Iraq, was not disputed by the Pentagon. “Why are we here?” was a constant question from soldiers, albeit often in saltier language.
The opinions of these soldiers deserve recognition. The Veterans for Peace, composed of soldiers from WWII on, and other Iraq War veteran groups, would welcome respect and support for those who are waging peace as a means to end or prevent wars, in honor of wartime fatalities.
Another dimension of honoring the war casualties would be to recognize the compassion of soldiers. In Iraq this was commonly tendered toward civilians (many of whom were women, children or elderly men) during a time of war, sometimes putting the soldiers themselves at risk. (Others deployed in Iraq, according to Pentagon investigations and news reports, were unimaginably brutal to innocent Iraqi civilians).
If memory does not include compassion, the loss of over a million Iraqi civilian lives (and many more injuries, illnesses and homeless refugees) and the blowing apart of that country – a nation that never threatened the U.S. – would go unrecognized.
Without encompassing the many dimensions of wars, we are left with self-perpetuating militarism engaging in self-promoting anthems producing rigidly conforming public responses. Such regimentation renders forebodingly prescient the warning of President Dwight Eisenhower about the “military-industrial complex” and what it has done to our freedoms, our priorities, and our democratic processes.
Being sensitive to the loss of life from wars, declared or undeclared, goes beyond the militaristic marching orders that breed censorship or self-censorship. Memorial Day can recognize those who gave up their lives without having to adopt unthinking marching orders that require rituals to be bereft of some thought and reflections about the horrors of war.
It would be helpful to recall how our leading generals of World War II spoke about how little glory there was amidst the bloody gore of mass killings. The words of then General Dwight Eisenhower from July 1945 demonstrate this point:
“I voiced … my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’.”
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Many other military leaders, including the five-star General George Marshall and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, viewed the mass civilian incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ordered by President Harry Truman as cruel and without military value in the last days of that war.
Militaristic ideology, as President Eisenhower knew well and responded to in his famous “cross of iron” address before the nation’s newspapers in April 1953, has its own wasteful and destructive momentum. It extends its presence into unwarranted sanctuaries from sports to media to education to religious activities. As it becomes more reckless and more politically driven by lies, deceptions and cover-ups, as with the drumbeat to the unconstitutional criminal war on Iraq by President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, it brooks no dissent. It tells people, in so many words, to shut up and shop.
For those who do not believe that relentless mass marketing of “Memorial Day sales,” from autos to mattresses, constitute a form of trespass on a solemn day of thoughtful remembrance, they have plenty of shopping opportunities.
For those who believe that a deliberate democratic society means remembering the tragedies of the past as a way to foresee and forestall repetition in the future, some time and space for reflection need to be provided. These are teaching moments to avert future preventable wars that claim many lives and destabilize societies into ruinous mayhem.
Waging strong peace initiatives is also a way to remember those human beings, soldiers and civilians, who never returned to their homes. “Never again” should be our tribute and promise to them.
And this just declared, Richard Clarke, who was George W. Bush’s Chief White House counterterrorism coordinator, was asked by Amy Goodman whether Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should “be brought up on war crimes for the attack on Iraq.” Mr. Clarke replied: “I think things that they authorized probably fall within the area of war crimes.”
Honoring those who died on both sides calls for, as Reagan Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein and Republican Fox commentator former Judge Andrew Napolitano, among others, have long urged, the criminal prosecution of leaders who are responsible for devastating war crimes.