On Memorial Day, Is There Room to Honor Former Enemies?

sunset july 2014 006

W.J. Astore

Judging by my local newspaper and email stream, Memorial Day is about sales and selling, a reminder that the business of America is business.  But of course Memorial Day is truly about honoring the dead in America’s wars, the veterans who died defending freedom.  Sadly, far too often wars are not fought for high ideals, but that is not the fault of the veteran.

As we remember American veterans this weekend, those who died in the name of defending our country and Constitution, we would do well to ask whether our sympathy for the dead should be limited only to those who fought under the U.S. flag, or whether we should extend it to “the enemy.”  In other words, to all those who suffer and die in wars.

Consider the Vietnam War, a war the USA could and should have avoided.  But we didn’t, and that war was prosecuted with a ruthlessness that was often barbaric.  America lost more than 58,000 in that war, and their names are on the wall in Washington, D.C.  We visit that wall and weep for our dead.

But what about the Vietnamese dead?  Estimates vary, but Vietnam lost roughly three million people in that war, with some figures approaching four million.  The war in Southeast Asia spread to Laos and Cambodia as well, leading to genocide and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.  Do we weep for their dead?

Vietnam today has friendly relations with the USA.  The enemy of the 1960s is, if not an ally, at least a trade partner. There are warm friendships shared between our peoples, nurtured by cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam.

So, in the case of the Vietnam War, as we remember the American Vietnam veteran, should we not make room in our hearts to remember the Vietnamese veteran as well?

Ultimately, our fellow human beings are not the enemy.  War is the enemy.  A will to destruction is the enemy.  And those caught up in war–the innocent victims on all sides–are worthy of being memorialized.

Far too often, national flags become little more than tribal symbols, much like bikers’ gangs and their colors.  Wear the wrong color, belong to a rival gang, and violence, even a mass shooting, is the result.

Are we fated to keep saluting our own colors while reviling the colors of others?  Are we fated to keep marching off to war under the American flag while killing those who fly a different flag?

Yes, there are necessary wars.  I for one wouldn’t want to live under the Nazi Swastika.  But history shows that necessary and just wars are rare.  For every past war fought for a “just” cause, so many more have been fought for loot, money, power, territory, radical ideologies of one sort or another, dynastic advantage, prestige, and on and on.  The one constant is the troops on all sides who march and die.

A memorial day that remembers the “enemy” dead as well as our own would, perhaps, be a small step toward a memorial day in the future with far fewer war dead to memorialize.

 

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7 thoughts on “On Memorial Day, Is There Room to Honor Former Enemies?

  1. Iwo Jima. Poem at the cemetery.

    When you go home
    Tell them for us
    For their tomorrow
    We gave our today

    War is seldom the answer. Indeed, war is about death not freedom.

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  2. Was there a man dismay’d?
    Not tho’ the soldier knew
    Someone had blunder’d:
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die:

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson
    The Charge of the Light Brigade (in part)

    Honor the soldiers
    The ‘Someone(s)’ ???

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  3. Ah, yes. Memories of “them” and “us” …

    Better Maimed than Marxist
    (an experiment in so-called “free verse”)

    At our U.S. Navy advanced tactical support base,
    on the banks of a muddy brown river,
    not far from the southernmost tip of South Vietnam,
    I injured my right middle finger
    in a pickup volleyball game one Sunday afternoon.

    Having no X-ray equipment at our little infirmary,
    I had to take a helicopter ride north
    to a larger Army base possessing
    better medical equipment and facilities
    to see if I had broken any bones in my hand.

    Walking down a hospital corridor, I passed
    a room full of Vietnamese patients
    who had no arms or legs.
    I experienced a disorienting sense of scale compression,
    unexpectedly witness to already small lives made minuscule in a moment,

    like seeing living dollar bills cut down to the size of postage stamps,
    or sentient silver quarters suddenly shrunk to copper pennies.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2012

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  4. I have yet to find anything in history that contradicts Jacob Bronowski’s insight that “war is organized theft…”
    The elites know exactly why they declare wars. The tribal narrative fed to the citizenry and soldiers who will kill and die is another matter altogether.
    Be well.

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    1. Other than Marine Corps General Smedley Butler calling war a “racket,” two of my favorite war quotes come from Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, namely:

      “Patriotism: combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name.”

      and

      “Patriot: the dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.”

      But since Plato said, “only the dead have seen the end of war,” I suspect that we simple American dupes and tools will live to see many more ambitious anybodies igniting patriotic bonfires so as to illuminate their personal vanity — while also lining their own pockets, of course.

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      1. Don’t forget George Marshall: “If man does find the solution for world peace it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known.”

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