What the President Should Say to the Troops

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W.J. Astore

For George W. Bush, American troops were the greatest force for human freedom in the world.  For Barack Obama, the troops represented the world’s finest fighting force, not just in this moment, but in all of human history.  What is the reason for such hyperbolic, I’d even say unhinged, praise for our troops?  Well, presidents obviously think it is both politically popular with the heartland and personally expedient in making them seem thankful for the troops’ service.

But here’s the problem: We don’t need hyperbolic statements that our military is the “finest fighting force” ever or that our troops are the world’s liberators and bringers of freedom.  Such words are immoderate and boastful.  They’re also false, or at least unprovable.  They’re intended to win favor both with the troops and with the people back home, i.e. they’re politically calculated.  And in that sense they’re ill-advised and even dishonest; they’re basically nothing more than flattery.

If I were president, I’d say something like this: “I commend our troops for their dedication, their service, their commitment, their sacrifice.  They represent many of the best attributes of our country.  I’m proud to be their commander in chief.”

Our troops and most everyone else would be more than satisfied with that statement.  Our troops don’t need to hear they’re the best warriors in all of history.  At the same time, they don’t need to hear they’re the bringers of freedom (“a global force for good,” to use the U.S. Navy’s slogan, recently dropped as demotivating to sailors and Marines).  Let’s pause for a moment and compare those two statements.  The toughest warriors and the finest liberators?  Life-takers and widow-makers as well as freedom-bringers and world liberators?  You think there just might be some tension in that equation?

We need honesty, not immodesty, from America’s presidents.  Give me a president who is able to thank the troops without gushing over them.  Even more, give me a president who thanks the troops by not wasting their efforts in lost causes such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  Give me a president who thanks the troops by downsizing our empire while fully funding benefits and health care for wounded veterans.

That’s the kind of thanks our troops really need – not empty flattery.

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

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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.