Monday, May 31, 2010

Towards a Real Memorial Day

Historian Andrew J. Bacevich's son was killed in action in Iraq three years ago. Today, Bacevich publishes in the Los Angeles Times, in part:
.....His death changed many things, among them my own hitherto casual attitude toward Memorial Day.

Here in New England, where we now make our home, deejays and local news anchors still proclaim Memorial Day weekend the unofficial start of summer, as if unearthing some fresh discovery. Folks with cottages to open up take to the highways, pushing through traffic toward seashore or mountains. Our trek will be considerably shorter and simpler: We will make the five-minute drive to our son's gravesite.

For us, personal loss has rendered the last Monday in May into the day of remembrance that it was originally intended to be. Yet loss has also invested Memorial Day with political significance, posing uncomfortable questions.

The fallen gave their lives so we might enjoy freedom: However comforting, this commonplace assertion qualifies at best as a half-truth. Who can doubt that the soldier killed in battle at Gettysburg or on Omaha Beach died while advancing the cause of liberty? Whether one can say the same about the Americans who lost their lives assaulting Mexico City in 1847, suppressing Filipino demands for independence after 1898 or chasing rebels in 1920s Nicaragua is less clear, however.

In recent decades especially, the connection between American military intervention and American freedom has become ever more tenuous. Meanwhile, competence has proved notably hard to come by. Rather than being a one-off event, Vietnam inaugurated an era in which the United States has routinely misunderstood and repeatedly misused military power. Even as political authorities sent U. S. forces into action with ever greater frequency, decisive results — what we used to call victory — became more elusive. From Beirut and Bosnia to Iraq and Somalia, the troops served and sacrificed while expending huge sums of taxpayer money. How their exertions were helping to keep Americans free became increasingly difficult to discern.

The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, already the longest shooting war in U.S. history, embodies these trends. Just about no one, from the senior field commander on down, considers the war there winnable in any meaningful sense. Arguments for perpetuating the U.S. military commitment resemble those once offered to justify Vietnam: We can't afford to look weak; American credibility is on the line.

How exactly did we get ourselves in such a fix, engaged in never-ending wars that we cannot win and cannot afford? Is the ineptitude of our generals the problem? Or is it the folly of our elected rulers? Or could it perhaps be our own lazy inattention? Rather than contemplating the reality of what American wars, past or present, have wrought, we choose to look away, preferring the beach, the ballgame and the prospect of another summer.

So while politicians promise peace and Congress ponies up the money for war, the troops head back for yet another combat tour. And more American families will be given the opportunity to experience Memorial Day in ways they never expected.
Bacevich's new book, "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War," will be out this summer.


  1. Thanks Emily. Points well taken and heavily weighed.

    I will confess to have wholeheartedly supported Bush I's repelling of Saddam's invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1991 as well as Clinton's bombing Serbia out of Kosovo (which resulted in zero loss of American lives). But other than that, I approve this message.

  2. I supported Clinton in the Balkans, but not GHW's war. Prior to invading Kuwait, Saddam, who was still our ally against Iran, discussed the possibility of military action against Kuwait, claiming that Kuwait was angle drilling into oilfields on Iraq's side of the border, with US Ambassador April Glaspie. After consulting with Washington, Glaspie told Saddam, "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait." In diplomat-speak, she was telling him that the US would not react, effectively giving him the green light to invade. GHW was slipping in the polls and needed a war to rally the people around him. So this was another war whose purpose had nothing to do with defending America.

  3. Okay, Tom C., you're free to delineate American national interests more narrowly than I do.

    As I do now, in 1991 I saw Kuwait as part of the essential world industrial food chain. Military revision was not to be tolerated. And I feel that way about the current Korean situation. And maybe it pertains to Pakistan today, too. But Afghanistan? Afghanistan is not a part of the world economy. And 9/11 doesn't change that. We kicked the Teliban tail in 2001. We been there & done that. Now we're trying to make this medieval moonscape a part of the world economy? When we ourselves are teetering on the brink of economic self-immolation? Bacevich is right: Obama is following the Bush road to perdition.

  4. While I agree with the author's point that many a U.S. soldier has given his life for causes that were sometimes very unjust (or were, at the very least, questionable), on this day, I try to focus solely on the bravery of these fine men. Politics - I save that for the other 364 days.

  5. You are so right on, Vig.

    Where is Obama's spine? Surely he cannot NOT see that we have NO BUSINESS continuing to expend irreplaceable personnel and expensive materiel in Afghanistan, while America's Ship of State sinks into the political wasteland brought to us by the corporatists' sycophantic Republican'ts.

    To continue this un-winnable war is simply a way of avoiding dealing with all the work that needs doing right here in America.

  6. This is the first I know that Mr Bacevich has spoken publicly on the death of his son. Previously he would only say it was too personal to discuss.

    I would say draftees have no choice in fighting, volunteers do. To take part in a war of aggression is participation in a criminal action. Claiming it is fighting for our freedom is condoning a lie.

  7. Blatant commercialization of patriotic sentiment, exploitation of Memorial Day and celebration of the killing instruments of war, demonstrates once again that the primary concern and motivation of banking and corporate executives, the primary sponsors of these spectacles, is profit. Their arrogance, insensitivity and greed is an outrage to anyone who has proudly worn the uniform, loves America and who understands and appreciates the nature of sacrifice and service to country. Most grievously, it is to defile the memory of those young men and women who have lost their lives in war, and an insult to their families who will never again caress their son, daughter, husband or wife ... and will never recover from their loss.

  8. In both these wars it was the folly of our misleader Bush! I am really happy to see our youth step up but am hurt to see them used aas they are. One of my sons is leaving Iraq for Afghanistan in July and one of his brothers is fighting to get back to Afghanistan. Another brother just left to fly a mission in Afghanistan. All our troops deserve great praise, Great Praise!