Memorial Day 1955 — And Today

wall
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

W.J. Astore

How far we’ve come as a country.  Consider the following proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for Memorial Day in 1955:

“Whereas Memorial Day each year serves as a solemn reminder of the scourge of war and its bitter aftermath of sorrow; and Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land… I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Monday, the thirtieth of May, 1955, as a day of Nation-wide prayer for permanent peace.”

Permanent peace?  What was that hippie peacenik president smoking?

I find it remarkable that talk of peace in America has almost completely disappeared from our public discourse.  Permanent war is instead seen as inevitable, the price of confronting evildoers around the world.

Yes, I know Ike’s record as president wasn’t perfect.  But compared to today’s presidents, whether Barack “Kill List” Obama or Donald “Make Genocidal Threats” Trump, Ike was positively pacific.

Memorial Day, as Ike said, is a time for us all to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died for this country.  But it’s also a time, as Ike said, to work to eliminate the scourge of war.  For the best way to honor our war dead is to work to ensure their ranks aren’t expanded.

Sadly, as Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich notes at TomDispatch.com, those ranks do keep expanding.  The names of our latest war dead are memorialized on a little-known wall in Marseilles, Illinois (including the name of Bacevich’s son, who died serving in Iraq).  Like Ike, Bacevich knows the costs of war, and like Ike he’s not taken in by patriotic talk about noble sacrifices for “freedom.”  As he puts it:

Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Those are strong words that all Americans should consider this Memorial Day weekend.  As we consider them, let’s also recall Ike’s 1955 prayer for peace.  And, even better, let’s act on it.

Read the rest of Andrew Bacevich’s article here at TomDispatch.

promo334624303
Part of the Middle East Conflicts Memorial Wall in Marseilles, Illinois

Memories of War

the-vietnam-memorial
Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

71ebqVLTrbL
A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

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.