Memorial Day musings on the culture of war and empire
Is there any American holiday more blatantly militaristic than Memorial Day?
Whether or not we are capable of admitting it, the entire long weekend is a celebration of war and empire. At the very least, one is unlikely to see any serious critique or challenge to either institution in one's various Memorial Day travels.
Of course, this is not how most Americans perceive the various parades and patriotic observances that mark the day's events. These parades are meant, we are told, to honor the soldiers who died "fighting for our freedom." While this refrain is no doubt comforting to the families of service members who have died, its legitimacy warrants some closer examination.
Have the long, bloody, unnecessary wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan really made us appreciably "freer" as citizens? Do our daily drone strikes of Syria, Yemen and Somalia truly enhance and strengthen our democracy? Indeed, if these wars are fought to maintain our freedom, then why have we lost so many of them--our right to privacy, to peaceful dissent, to habeas corpus to name just a few--since 9/11?
By that measure, these wars seem to be failing. Yet even allegedly "anti-war" liberals unblinkingly swallow this infantile rhetoric--the more eagerly so when the presiding Warmonger-in-Chief is a Democrat.
Our young men and women did certainly fight and die for something, but it was not freedom. They died for empire, Wall Street, global U.S. hegemony, and corporate profits. They gave their lives so Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), General Electric, and Raytheon could get richer while towns across America continue to close schools, slash budgets and reduce assistance to the poor. (Because, you know, "we're broke.")
"They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country," Ernest Hemingway wrote in his 1935 Esquire article, "Notes on the Next War: A Serious Topical Letter." "But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason."
Politicians cynically use Memorial Day to pledge their unwavering support and commitment to The Troops. Those returning soldiers who continue to read from the nationalistic script of war-as-necessary-for-freedom may even be trotted out to speak on the Sunday news shows about their "heroic" experiences in fighting overseas.
But any other time of year we cannot turn out backs on these young men and women--kids, really--fast enough.
Those that survive the horrors of war return physically and psychologically maimed. The majority of U.S. soldiers come from poor or working-class families. For many of them, the military is the only career option. A disproportionate number of military enlistees come from Maine, particularly the northern, more economically-deprived part of the state. Suffice to say, you typically do not see the wealthy, the privileged or the college-educated shipping off to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Upon returning from war, soldiers often find it impossible to re-acclimate themselves to civilian life, and struggle to find those wonderful jobs the military disingenuously promises them. After dutifully fulfilling their "patriotic" role in defending empire, they are promptly discarded like so much human cattle.
"Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder," observed Socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs in denouncing World War I.
...And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars. The subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose--especially their lives.
Hence the importance of a national, highly subsidized military in any capitalist society. As the "CrimethInc." authors explain in their self-published book, Work: Capitalism, Economics & Resistance (2011), "The military is by far the most socialized sector of the US economy. Without the employment opportunities it offers the poor and restless, many of them might seek their fortune in another army" (p. 128, Italics theirs).
But this all goes well beyond the simplistic, nationalistic cant of the average Memorial Day parade. To the extent that Americans reflect on issues of war and peace at all (most of them spend the three-day weekend at the beach or grilling E. coli-tainted meat from Hannaford), the shallow rhetoric rarely transcends beyond, "thanking" the troops for their "service."
War has become our new religion. While membership in traditional religious faiths continues to decrease, Americans remain intimately connected through the language, rituals, and iconography of, in the words of Glenn Greenwald, "all things military."
And I am not merely referring to jingoistic conservatives, here. Allegedly anti-war liberals have, under Barack Obama's presidency, proven themselves just as hawkish.
Case in point, during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker praised the assassination of Osama bin Laden as one of Obama's chief first-term accomplishments. ("Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!" vice president Joe Biden exclaimed triumphantly.) Liberal convention-goers greeted this exaltation with jubilant cheers and banal chants of "USA!, USA!"
(For the record, it is perfectly legitimate to fervently despise an individual's criminal actions, and still refuse to rejoice at that person's death. Life is frequently full of such ambiguous complexity, despite our media and politicians' desperate attempts to reduce everything to simplistic, "us-vs.-them" sloganeering. I, for one, would have preferred to see bin Laden arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his crime against humanity.)
This type of behavior is typical of those infected with the childish, barbaric mentality of war. The language of war--like the iconography of advertising--replaces rational, complex thought with simplistic symbolism and irrational emotional appeals. Or, in the moronic words of NRA spokesman, Wayne LaPierre in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, "The only thing that stops a bad-guy with a gun is a good-guy with a gun." Such an infantile worldview is far more pervasive than most of us care to realize. It is a direct product of a culture steeped in the language of war.
As with any religion, those who offer even the most mild criticism of its doctrines or prophets, those who speak outside the narrow parameters of what is deemed "acceptable discourse," are banished and treated as unpatriotic pariahs.
This is precisely what happened to historian Howard Zinn, author of the bestselling, A People's History of the United States, when he too dared to question the priorities of Memorial Day in an op-ed column in the Boston Globe on June 2, 1976. Zinn, who was a regular Globe columnist at the time, in a piece titled, "Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?" had the audacity to observe the holiday should be a day "for putting flowers on graves and planting trees."
"Also," he added, "for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren."
Dear lord. Planting trees is one thing, but "destroying weapons of death"...? And Zinn calls himself an American...?
This was, predictably, the last editorial Zinn wrote for the Globe. He was fired shortly thereafter. Remind me again what George Orwell said about truth-telling becoming a revolutionary act in a time of "universal deceit."
Here's the takeaway: Let's make Memorial Day obsolete by no longer sending our service men and women to war. This is not a call for "weakness," or "surrender." It is a call for a renewed sense of humanity. War does not make us safer or freer. It does nothing to enhance our democracy. Quite the reverse--it erodes it. It makes us less safe--more vulnerable to retaliatory "blowback." As anti-war author Gino Strada urges, we must go beyond helping the victims of war to abolishing war itself.
And if we are serious about abolishing the institution of war then it is essential we understand the intimate connection between the forces that send us to war--the so-called military-industrial-complex--and capitalism.
Again, the words of the late Howard Zinn are instructive. In a chapter entitled "War is the Enemy," in his essay-collection, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (City Lights, 2007) he writes:
My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race (p. 196).