Memorial Day: Honoring the Dead (But Only Some of Them)
Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet
(June 6, 2021) — On Memorial Day, Joe Biden followed in the footsteps of other presidents and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—and thereby promoted in a decades-long cover-up.
According to a Brown University study: “At least 800,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.” The casualties included “thousands of service members and… thousands of contractors” (read: “mercenaries”) but “the vast majority of people killed are civilians. More than 310,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting since 2001.” By some estimates, while 9.7 million soldiers have died in wars, around 10 million civilians have been recorded as “collateral damage.”
If soldiers are “laying down their lives” (a phrase that makes a brutal death sound like an act of voluntary sacrifice) to “defend” human freedoms, why do we not also honor the majority of war’s “fallen”—the innocent civilians whose freedoms are supposedly the justification for waging bloody conflicts?
What are the odds that a “Tomb of the Unknown Civilian Family” might be added to the architecture at the Arlington Cemetery? (It’s more likely that Congress would fund construction of a “Tomb of the Unknown Military Contractor.”)
As We Honor Those Who Died in War, Let’s Hope We Don’t Add More to their Number
(May 31, 2021) — At a Memorial Day event in Delaware on Sunday, President Biden said, “Those names that’s on that wall, and every other wall and tombstone in America of veterans, is the reason why we’re able to stand here. We can’t kid ourselves about that.” It’s a frequently expressed sentiment on Memorial Day: Without the sacrifice of those who fought in the nation’s wars, the United States would no longer exist.
But 76 years removed from the end of World War II — the “good” war — our relationship to the wars of the past may be changing, in ways that make it less likely that we’ll keep adding names to those walls.
The United States is, without question, the most militarily adventurous nation in the modern world. Since World War II, we’ve fought large-scale wars in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, plus smaller-scale invasions and incursions in Cuba, Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Libya and many others.
But while it’s early in Biden’s presidency, it is hard to detect in him much appetite for sending US troops halfway around the world, even in what we believe to be a noble cause. Perhaps Biden himself has changed from the time he was a frequent advocate of the use of military force to solve problems. More likely, the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan have changed almost everyone’s perspective.
Soon, there won’t be any living veterans of “good” wars. Almost all of those who will be able to tell of their experiences will have lived through wars that should never have started and that they should never have had to endure.
“Every day since I was vice president, I’ve carried with me a card with the exact number of troops killed in our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Biden said in his speech; the number on that card is currently 7,036. The painful truth is that whatever their courage, their patriotism, and their willingness to sacrifice for others, it’s impossible to argue that, without their deaths, America would have ceased to exist. It’s hard to even argue that the wars they fought made us appreciably safer.
What we can say is that the failure of those two wars, and the terrible sacrifice of those who died and their loved ones, have given us a healthy reluctance to keep adding names to those walls.
What may be most remarkable is that the reluctance is clear in both parties, and to at least some degree we can thank President Donald Trump for making opposition to large-scale foreign adventurism more respectable within the GOP. While he was happy to launch strikes in Syria or Iraq, from the moment he began running for president he ridiculed the Iraq War as a disaster, and pretended he opposed the war from the start. Even his more hawkish 2016 primary opponents were left sputtering when asked whether the war was a mistake. And unlike almost every Republican president in modern history, he didn’t launch any new invasions.
There are certainly Republicans who would like to bring back the idea that there are few problems in the world that cannot be solved by US military action. Had you asked me a year ago which future Republican presidential contender would be most likely to invade multiple countries, in a heartbeat, I’d have said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) or Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.); the only difference today is that Cheney’s future in her party is pretty much over. But the average ambitious Republican today does not feel any need to promote military adventurism as a foundational principle.
It might not last, of course. After invading Kuwait in 1991, President George H.W. Bush said triumphantly, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” by which he meant that the country had shaken off its doubts and could get back to launching invasions thousands of miles away. He was right, for a while at least. It’s always possible that after another decade or so, another president might decide that we’ve “kicked the Iraq syndrome” and the public could be brought along for a new war that would produce yet more dead American servicemembers (and, of course, a far larger death toll in whichever country we say we’re liberating).
But for now, we’ve lost our taste for it. If that memory begins to fade, we should remind ourselves of what a catastrophe Iraq was — how so many of us were so easily convinced we were under threat and that we would be welcomed as liberators, and how cataclysmic the results were.
Sometimes, people are admonished for treating Memorial Day as just an opportunity for a barbecue, forgetting those whom it’s meant to honor. It’s certainly easier for many to do when we count the dead from our recent wars in the thousands, not the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands.
But it does no dishonor to their sacrifice, or the pain of the families they left behind, to hope fervently that the number of those who join them in the future will be as small as possible. As former president Jimmy Carter said when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.