The most powerful video I’ve watched about Memorial Day is this short essay by Andy Rooney at “60 Minutes.” Each time I watch it, I get choked up a bit.
Andy makes many excellent points in this video. He says those who die in wars don’t “give” their lives for their country; rather, their lives are taken from them. He reminds us that war is the least noble of humanity’s actions, even with the displays of courage and bravery that take place during it. Finally, he wishes for a different Memorial Day, not one in which we remember the dead, but one where we celebrate the end of war and the safety and security of our children.
Andy Rooney knew war, and close friends of his died in World War II. For me, this video both captures the spirit of Memorial Day while pointing the way forward to a better day in America.
In late 2009, I wrote the following article for Huff Post under the title, “One Grizzled Veteran’s Dream.” This Memorial Day Weekend, I’d like to remember the dream a veteran shared with me and lots of other high school juniors back in 1980. Sadly, that dream is even more distant today than it was in 1980.
Thirty years ago, I attended Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys State introduces high school students to civics and government in a climate that bears a passing resemblance to military basic training. Arranged in “companies,” we students did our share of hurrying up, lining up, and waiting (sound preparation, in fact, for my career in the military). I recall that one morning a “company” of students got to eat first because they launched into a lusty rendition of the Marine Corps hymn. I wasn’t angry at them: I was angry at myself for not thinking of the ruse first.
Today, most of my Boys State experience is a blur, but one event looms large: the remarks made by a grizzled veteran to us assembled boys. Standing humbly before us, he confessed that he hoped organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars would soon wither away. And he said that he hoped none of us would ever become a member of his post.
At first, we didn’t get it. Didn’t he like us? Weren’t we tough enough? (Indeed, I recall that one of our adolescent complaints was that the name “Boys State” didn’t seem manly enough.)
Then it dawned on us what the withering away of organizations like the American Legion and the VFW would mean. That in our future young Americans would no longer be fighting and dying in foreign wars. That our world would be both saner and safer, and only members of an “old guard” like this unnamed veteran would be able to swap true war stories. Our role would simply be to listen with unmeasured awe and undisguised thanks, grateful that our own sons and daughters no longer had to risk life or limb to enemy bullets and bombs.
It pains me that we as a country have allowed this veteran’s dream to die. We as a country continue to enlarge our military, expand our foreign commitments, and fight seemingly endless wars, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in other far-off realms of less-than-vital interest to us.
As a result of these wars, we continue to churn out so many new veterans, including so many wounded veterans, not forgetting those who never made it back.
Collectively, we Americans tend to suppress whatever doubts we have about the wisdom of our wars with unequivocal statements of support for our troops. And on days like Veteran’s Day, we honor those who served, and especially those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield.
Yet, wouldn’t the best support for our troops be the achievement of the dream of that grizzled vet who cut through a young man’s fog thirty years ago?
Shouldn’t we be working to achieve a new age in which the rosters of our local VFWs and Legion posts are no longer renewed with the broken bodies and shattered minds of American combat veterans?
Sadly, as we raise more troops and fight more wars, we seem committed to the opposite. Our military just enjoyed its best recruiting class in years. This “success” is not entirely surprising. It’s no longer that difficult to fill our military’s expanding ranks because many of our young men and women simply have little choice but to enlist, whether for economic opportunity, money for college, or benefits like free health care.
Many of course enlist for patriotic reasons as well. Yet the ease of expanding our military ranks during a shooting war is also a painful reminder of the impoverishment of opportunities for young, able-bodied Americans – the bitter fruit of manufacturing jobs sent overseas, of farming jobs eliminated by our own version of corporate collectivization, of a real national unemployment rate that is approaching twenty percent.
On this Veteran’s Day, what if we began to measure our national success and power, not by our military arsenal or by the number of new recruits in the ranks, but rather by the gradual shrinking of our military ranks, the decline of our spending on defense, perhaps even by the growing quiet of our legion posts and VFW halls?
Wouldn’t that be a truer measure of national success: fewer American combat veterans?
Wouldn’t that give us something to celebrate this Veteran’s Day?
I know one old grizzled veteran who would quietly nod his agreement.
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.
Heading north from the Beltway via Highway 1 to the centers of US power in Washington, DC you’ll pass through trendy Alexandria, Virginia, before encountering scrappier neighborhoods closer in. But don’t worry, because within just a few miles, the glint of ultra-modern office buildings appears on the horizon. Behold America’s own Emerald City, appropriately named Crystal City, Virginia!
The nameplates on the buildings there reveal powerful governmental (the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and corporate (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other major defense contractors) entities. Walking into the lobby of any of these defense industry titans reveals a level of swankiness that would not be out of place in a five-star luxury hotel. Conference rooms outfitted with the very latest technology enfold you in plush comfortable chairs. One can’t help but to conclude that business is going very well here. It’s crystal clear that you’ve arrived among the winners of America’s imperial moment.
A quick detour to the Pentagon, just on the outskirts of Crystal City, confirms that forever war continues to be forever profitable — for some. Just look at the constellations of stars — generals’ and admirals’ stars, that is — in the Pentagon’s corridors of power. Since September 2001, Congressional authorizations of flag-rank, three- and four-star levels “have increased twice as fast as one- and two-star generals,” notes Dina Rasor, citing Congressional testimony from Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight.
Small wonder that governmental and corporate facilities in military-budget-fueled Crystal City shine so brightly. The US military budget was $861 billionin fiscal year 2011, representing 58 percent of the federal discretionary budget. By comparison, federal spending on education usually consumes a paltry four percent of that same budget. And despite the so-called sequester “cuts” to the defense budget, America’s projected yearly defense budgets under President Obama continue to be larger than the projected military spending of the next ten highest-spending nations… combined.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children …. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Ike, a retired five-star general, was right. We must reverse an ethos in this country that sees cuts in war spending as emasculating. We must embrace the idea of a “peace dividend” that facilitates investment in our citizens and our communities. It sure beats payola to major corporations for their inflated weaponry.
For a nation hooked on warriors and warfighters and weapons, such a change in ethos won’t be easy. But we need to make it. Because if we continue on our present path of blockbuster defense budgets and unending global military commitments, we know who loses – and it’s not the major defense contractors or the Pentagon brass.
Memorial Day reminds us who loses; we visit their graves, mourn their deaths, and vow to end the madness of war.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com, Huffington Post, History News Network, and Truthout, among other sites.