Memorial Day emerged from the embers of the Civil War, when 620,000 Americans – Union and Confederate – lost their lives. That is still the greatest death toll in absolute number of any war in our history, but in comparison to the size of the population in the United States in the 1860s, that number is even more astounding – it would be equivalent to 6 million deaths, today.
Twenty years after the Civil War, in 1884, before a World War I or II, before a Vietnam or Iraq, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. delivered what is considered one of the best speeches to mark Memorial Day (he only became Supreme Court justice in 1902-1932).
He begins by pondering why Memorial Day was still marked, a question that resonates today:
“So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly.
“To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhere as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, so it is appropriate to reflect in those terms, even though, 150 years later, our Memorial Day now embraces those who died since – the Spanish American War, World War I (the War to End All Wars), World War II (The Great War), Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. In all, some 2 million have died in all our wars since the Revolutionary War (amazingly, 8,000 Patriots died in combat, a total of 25,000 of all causes).
Are these wars all equivalent? Are the motives equally noble? The recourse equally justified? Those in power use the flag-waving and glorification to send our youth into battle, perhaps to make the ultimate sacrifice or suffer physical or mental wounds that may last a lifetime or cut short a life even if the soldier has survived the war.
And it is not just the dead and the wounded – the soldiers – who are affected, but fathers and mothers, wives and mothers, children who must face the rest of their lives with that great, unfilled void in their hearts.
Soldiers went off to the Civil War wrapped in glory, thinking the fight would be over in a matter of weeks, rather than slog on for five long, horribly tragic years. Was even that “great” war necessary, or was there a way to resolve even those deep divides that pitted brother against brother? Was this a war to end the scourge of slavery, to defend state’s rights and the right of self-determination, or preserve union?
Even if slavery were so entrenched in the economic, political and social fabric of the South (where 4 million of the 9 million inhabitants were slaves), there should have been a solution, even through state’s rights, to make the change, as the Northern states (including New York and Rhode Island) and the rest of the world did.
But if you could have asked those soldiers what they were fighting for – at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg, and scores of battlefields – there would be few Northern soldiers who said they were fighting to end slavery, and if you asked the Confederates, few would have said they were fighting to preserve this obscenely inhuman institution.
When is war necessary? When is war the only answer? World War II seems to have been justified, when you have a madman bent on the genocide of people and the brutal subjugation of all the rest.
But who would argue that Iraq – in which hundreds of thousands (even a million) civilians were slaughtered in that “glorious” campaign of Shock and Awe – was justified?
Soldiers do not get a choice. Even today, with our so-called “volunteer” army – they may be brought into the battle under false premises, as in the illegal, immoral war in Iraq. Many among the 5,000 dead we honor this Memorial Day signed on during peacetime because of the scarcity of jobs and the chance at a government-paid college education; others signed on in the wake of September 11, 2001, thinking they were preserving our freedoms, even though Iraq had nothing to do with that Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda or the attack on the World Trade Center.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. actually spoke of this in another Memorial Day speech for which he is renowned, delivered in 1895: “…the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”
And to answer his question, why we still mark Memorial Day, I would suggest that the flags and bands and pomp and ceremony that are part of Memorial Day tradition are meant to salve the wounds of those who have lost loved ones, but also to inspire a new generation to put on a uniform.
And now, the debate rages about Afghanistan, especially as Congress takes up a new appropriation to keep that war going.
We invaded that country after September 11, 2001 because that is where Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda plotted and trained and hid out. Thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, and now the death of bin Laden, we are still there, though it is estimated there are but a few hundred Al Qaeda members (many more Taliban) as Al Qaeda has mestastisized into a Hydra of terror in countless countries and communities around the world. Even in our country, where homegrown terrorists plot.
Now, more than 70% of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth fighting. But have simply grown tired, or are there legitimate reasons to stay, or is this war being perpetuated because ….?
The problem is that we citizens do not have the same information as our leaders – even with the exposure of Wikileaks (that only showed what we didn’t know, but not all that there is to know to strangely evoke former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld).
That is why we have to have the confidence in our elected leaders that they are making correct decisions based purely on national security and not on political calculation or worse, to profit those powerful elites who always seem to have the ear of our leaders.
President Bill Clinton, speaking in February on the 15th anniversary of the Dayton Accords which ended the Kosovo genocide, raised the difficulty:
“A President has to do what he thinks is right,” Clinton said. “That doesn’t he mean should ignore popular opinion, but if you know things that the public doesn’t, and you can see around the corner….. That’s the context in which this occurred.”
The US-led NATO action, he said, saved thousands from ethnic cleansing, and not a single American soldier died in that conflict.
Similar reasoning is what propelled Obama to act to stop Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi
from massacring is own people – an action that was completely different from what Bush did in preemptively invading Iraq.
So far, there are no American soldiers added to our Memorial Day commemoration as a result of that decision to support a no-fly zone over Libya, but there are skeptics concerned about widening involvement.
Even before the eradication of Osama bin Laden (in Pakistan, not Afghanistan), there were growing voices to end the campaign there, which have only grown stronger since. (I am particularly offended by reporting which shows these unbelievably grand houses, built with the profits from American taxpayer money, in otherwise impoverished neighborhoods, evidence of the pervasive corruption.)
“An endless war in Afghanistan is not in America’s best interest,” states Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). “After nearly a decade at war, with still no equal commitment from the Karzai government, and after all the lives sacrificed and the billions we’ve spent on this war, it is my strong view that it is time to negotiate a Strategic Redeployment Agreement with Afghanistan that would mandate a date certain for the withdrawal of all United States combat forces.”
Gillibrand, along with Senators Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, Dick Durbin are co-sponsors of the Safe and Responsible Redeployment of United States Combat Forces from Afghanistan Act of 2011.
“President Obama has already committed to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan this July and that is a vitally important step forward. However, this alone is not enough. I believe a clear combat redeployment agreement would help our efforts in Afghanistan by reinforcing Afghan sovereignty and protecting both the readiness and the flexibility we need to meet the full array of global security challenges that confront our country.”
No doubt, though there will be those who push to continue the war, because that is where the money is.
How many times in our history and the history of other nations have citizens been manipulated into war, whipped up with jingoist phrases to be used like chess pieces for the strategic benefit of an elite? Every war, including the Civil War, makes millionaires of those who are in a position to profit. Who can deny the existence of what President Eisenhower warned was the growing power of the “military-industrial complex”?
Holmes, in his 1895 Memorial Day speech, said, “I once heard a man say, ‘Where Vanderbilt sits, there is the head of the table. I teach my son to be rich.’ He said what many think. For although the generation born about 1840, and now governing the world, has fought two at least of the greatest wars in history, and has witnessed others, war is out of fashion, and the man who commands attention of his fellows is the man of wealth. Commerce is the great power. The aspirations of the world are those of commerce. Moralists and philosophers, following its lead, declare that war is wicked, foolish, and soon to disappear.
“The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any other grievance.”
Though Holmes seemed to be expressing regret that war would somehow fall from fashion – that people would pursue commerce and reform in the absence of draining resources and manpower in the cause of war – it is appropriate to recognize that the trillion dollars that have been blown on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the growing gap between rich and poor in this country and the decimation of the middle-class.
Thoughts of Veterans
It is this society that our veterans – now 2 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan – return to, many to face an entirely new kind of battle: – unemployment, homelessness, despair.
Holmes, in his 1884 speech, said, “When we meet thus, when we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living, we do not deceive ourselves. We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.”
It is hideous and shameful that there are so many homeless veterans (we think of Vietnam veterans, but this is happening today), so many suicides (what would you expect from wars where the opponents are not wearing uniforms but you find yourself unable to distinguish between civilians and the enemy?).
Amid flag waving and bands playing, Bush sent men and women to die, then turned a blind eye to the wounded warriors who returned, moving instead to close Veterans hospitals and stinted on funding for Veterans Affairs.
Obama is different. He has pledged to provide the health care (amazing what prosthetics and physical therapy can do) and services that veterans need, and Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have made a crusade of focusing on jobs for veterans and their families.
“America’s service men and women are resilient, so they don’t complain, and proud, so they don’t show it,” Michelle Obama said in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative last September appealing to private employers to reach out to veterans and their families. “But it is hard to give so much for so long for a cause bigger than yourself only to come home and not know where to fit in.”
She pointed to the New GI Bill, and a policy to make veteran hiring a priority in the federal government.
Others are taking up this theme.
“Veterans and reservists bring highly desirable traits to the corporate workplace,” writes Jerold Ramos, a Navy veteranwho is a Kansas City, Missouri based Manager of Talent Acquisition for Allied Barton Security Services, a leading physical security services company with over 55,000 employees nationwide. “Leadership, dedication, responsiveness and work ethic are the rule, not the exception, with military personnel. These individuals can also quickly adapt to changing situations, and are therefore able to learn a new culture or new tasks quickly. And what they don’t know, they are eager to learn – making them receptive and ready hires in work environments that value ongoing learning and training.”
Ramos invites employers nationwide to become true partners with organizations such as Employer Partnership of the Armed Forces, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, Wounded Warrior Project and HireVeterans to ensure that companies are maximizing their ability to recruit from this extremely qualified talent pool, and support those who have sacrificed so much to protect our freedom. Veterans can also take advantage of the services these organizations offer. These groups are dedicated to putting our nation’s military personnel to work, and can help employers and veterans alike.
Parade for Peacemakers?
On Memorial Day, we honor our dead as well as our veterans, but too few dare to question whether war was justified at all. We don’t dare. Because the purpose of Memorial Day is to attach to warriors a kind of glory that is not offered to the peacemakers – the diplomats, the healers, the teachers, the people who at great risk (and many deaths), put themselves in harm’s way to ease the lot of the people.
Where are the parades for the peacemakers, who have sacrificed their lives?
I’m thinking of most immediately of the 10 humanitarian workers who were killed April 2010 in a remote area of northern Afghanistan while on a medical mission. They were part of International Assistance Mission, one of many international non-governmental organizations providing assistance to the Afghan people. Aid workers face danger daily, caught between military forces and insurgents.
The past decade has been the deadliest for humanitarian workers on record with 100 deaths per year, the United Nations reports. It has become increasingly dangerous for humanitarian workers to carry out missions in conflict zones around the world. Attacks on humanitarian posts have tripled, with Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia the most dangerous for humanitarian workers Afghanistan has been the deadliest.
I’m also thinking of the war correspondents and photographers who have died in the course of trying to bring the story of war and bloodshed to the rest of the world – Tim Hetherington and U.S.-based photographer Chris Hondros who were apparently targeted by Gaddafi’s forces, to keep them from bringing images of the government slaughtering protesters, to the world.
This Memorial Day, I want to specifically pay tribute to Frank Buckles, America’s last World War I veteran, who died three months ago. This Memorial Day weekend, the World War I Memorial Foundation is renewing its call for passage of the Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act, which would authorize a National Memorial honoring the nation’s veterans of World War I. In that war, 4,734,991 Americans served; 116,000 lost their lives.
I also want to pay particular tribute to Ellis Smith Braun, who I wrote about for Memorial Day 2009. A nurse who served n the South Pacific during World War II, she was the real life ‘Nellie,’ from “South Pacific”. I met her in Florida, but she lived for 30 years in Port Washington. This remarkable woman passed away earlier this year, at the age of 95.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. closed his 1884 Memorial Day speech saying, “Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen , the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”
To which I would quote Deuteronomy: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” and add, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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