This morning with rain falling on crowds of families protected by umbrellas, a solemn group of military veterans conducted a quiet Memorial Day ceremony at a small cemetery in Geneva, Illinois. There are likely hundreds if not thousands of such ceremonies going on across America today, each with its own flavor and significance.
When our family lived in Geneva we walked down to witness that Memorial Day parade and service every year. Often I’d rush home from competing in the Elgin Fox Trot 10 mile to shower and pull the kids in our American Flyer red wagon as they sipped on Capri-Sun sun drinks and hid either from hot sun or threatening rain.
My father was a serviceman in the Navy during World War II but he never made much of his time in the Pacific to his four boys. He rode across the ocean in a rattling old bold that was scuttled to the bottom of the sea once it delivered its crew across to Japan, where the American military was busy in 1945 overseeing the transition from war to peace time. My father took photos of the city of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where our war planes had dropped the bombs that helped convince the Japanese to stop fighting. Those photos, and those bombs, only made sense to me when I was much older and could understand what the terrors of war really meant.
My father-in-law also served in the military. He was stationed in Guam far out in the Pacific where he worked as a radio man for the Army. His tales of service were focused far more on the advent of technology that helped the war effort than on grim scenes of terrifying battles or buddies lost or maimed in action.
It therefore fell to me to learn more about what war was about on my own. I read books about wars and a massive tw0-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Those convinced me of the importance of determination and valor in the face of a remorseless enemy. They illustrated both the conservative zeal for country and the liberal guts of taking chances when the odds seem slim.
They also made me consider whether I would have had the guts for war had I been called to service. As it turned out my generation of young men and women never even had to register for military service. The draft was over and there were no requirements to give our names over to the government. That dismissal from military connection might have lasted a mere few years but it was also an apparent recoil from the period in the early 1970s when the draft sent thousands of young men off to that confusing mess of a conflict our country created in Vietnam.
The closest I could then come to military service was to participate in athletics. The head-banging and puking learned through these endeavors, might not have been war, but they do teach you what it means to give your all.
My brothers were older and their numbers were never called. Yet I knew plenty of Vietnam veterans and few had anything good to say about their time in that war. Of course the war protests were a big part of my awareness growing up. I was in middle school from 1968 through 1970. Peace signs and televised marches and protests against the war were everywhere. I grew up thinking war was a pretty bad thing. That view has not radically changed since I was twelve years old.
That’s the same age at which my athletic career began to careen toward becoming a distance runner. That meant early exposure to discipline and sacrifice as a way of life. I was drawn as well to the idea of triumphing over difficulty. There was a mean streak of anti-authority running through my veins as well. I sometimes wondered how I might have done as a soldier? Would I have resisted command from superior officers or welcomed it?
Perspectives on authority
I know the answer to that question now. As life goes by you experience various kinds of authority in your work and personal life. You come to appreciate that authority can be both smart and stupid. If you’re smart you learn to recognize authority that has purpose and that which is just the product of controlling people with an agenda of their own. Of course that kind of authority is hard to parse in times of battle. Great generals often have outsized egos to match. Churchill was no wilting flower either. We need leaders with guts to make tough decisions. Sometimes that means men and women go to die in the name of country. That’s what Memorial Day is all about.
So I took it as my responsibility to learn about why our nation fought its wars. Sometimes there were good reasons, such as fighting off Hitler. There were wars of fear like Vietnam and Korea. There have been wars of economic and political interests such as the first Gulf War in Iraq. Then came the long war of retaliation in Afghanistan that is still going on. And let us not forget the war of choice America waged in Iraq that led to 4000 soldiers killed and thousands maimed and wounded.
I did not support the reasons Americans were given for starting that war. I saw through the jingoism and ideological cheerleading (including the media) that capitalized on the tragedy of the 9/11 debacle to rush our nation into war in Iraq.
That made me look even deeper into our nation’s history and its choices in war. One book whose title I cannot recall struck me most deeply. It was a documentary tome about how America has treated its soldiers during and after its wars. It outlined the many promises we made to soldiers in advance of war and the promises broken after war was over. It showed how many times America’s politicians have dragged our nation and its military into war and then sealed its pockets when war was over. For centuries veterans have been placed in horrific situations and told to be brave only to come home from battle to find that the country cared not one whit for their sacrifice. It happened with the Civil War and it is still happening today.
World War II and beyond
The biggest exception to this horrid tradition was the GI Bill that sent millions of military personnel to college after World War II. What followed was a period of great prosperity for our country. This was a quid pro quo with conscience.
Some might call it a liberal folly to actually fund the college education of military personnel and veterans. But truly, this was one of the only times in American history when military veterans were compensated for their service and sacrifice.
It makes no sense that military personnel are paid so poorly to this day. It makes no sense that we don’t reward people who invest their lives on behalf of our country with education and yet, even pensions the rest of their lives. Anyone who serves in the military deserves this. And if you are wounded in action or left without limbs or eyes or half a brain due to impact or concussion, our country should pay every goddamned dime you need for the rest of your life. That’s patriotism, folks. These are the people we need to remember. I’m a political liberal but I support the military 100%.
That’s the personnel I’m talking about however. Our nation’s penchant for military spending as a portion of its overall budget gets a little out of hand. We all know stories about $5000 hammers and other sources of military waste. Where are the so-called conservatives on issues like these? We hear gripes from that side of the aisle about too many corporate taxes and stealing wealth from the jobs-creators and how that’s all wrong. Yet we hear absolutely nothing about being wise with our national treasury and billions in taxes spent on a military that spends as much as the next 17 military nations combined.
That is insanity, not intelligence. Together with our nation’s history of abusing and impoverishing our soldiers with wars of choice, poor compensation in service, neglectful care for veterans and mercenary spending that fuels the military-industrial complex, America has a lot to answer for.
And no one seems to be talking about the answers. Instead we gather annually to wave flags and pretend we love our fallen when in fact there have been millions of soldiers basically chewed up and spit out by our society.
It’s harsh to remind people of all this on Memorial Day. These are military grade thoughts on what basically is a civilian holiday designed to pay respects to all branches of service.
But the thing that all my running and riding have taught me about life is that sacrifice is often poorly understood by the very people who claim to celebrate it. People mean well. They might slap you on the back and chortle, “Good race!” But in your mind you utter, “You don’t know the half of it.”
And of course that’s vitally true with our military as well. Soldiers hold things close to their hearts that either cannot express or dare not tell. When you’ve seen limbs torn clean off and bodies turned into red mist there is no real place in daily conversation for that imagery. That’s the reason why soldiers become bonded in war. Who else can imagine the sacrifice and solid bonds that come from facing mortal terror?
God and foxholes
We’ve also heard it said “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When your life is on the line, belief in a higher power may feel like your only salvation. Yet even Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane wept and sweated blood at the realization of what was about to transpire. We should never pretend that we are more brave than we truly are. Jesus showed the way on that.
Yet there are people who take even that example for granted, flaunting their religious beliefs as if they were the ultimate expression of truth and bravery when in fact they expose the weak and fragile souls beneath all that religious zeal. We see it all the time with the religion known as Christianity. The things for which Jesus preached and sacrificed his own life, such as caring for the poor, loving your enemies and loving your neighbor as yourself are the very things pushed to the background by people fighting to discriminate against the poor, blame them for the ills of the nation, hating people for their gender, orientation or race, and all the while calling people names because they don’t vote for the same political party or adhere to the sickly twisted values expressed in meta-Christianity.
Confusing God and Country
Meanwhile all that gets mixed in with national identity and people can’t separate the notion of God from country. Swirl it together further and we wind heading to war for all the wrong reasons, lashing out against Muslims in Crusades ancient and modern.
Meanwhile back home in the United State we let military grade and easy-to-use weapons flood our streets. The result is that more people have died on American soil due to gun violence than all the soldiers that ever died on foreign soil in America’s wars. Think about that. We’re a nation at war with its itself.
As a result we confuse violence with heroics. And then we wind up confusing our criminals for heroes, lauding men like Oliver North who abused our nation’s laws to throw money and guns around in secret wars for which there were no accountability. Even Ronald Reagan admitted that was the Grand Mistake of his presidency. We only wish George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had exhibited such moral fiber. If the GOP admires Ronald Reagan so much, how come they seem to have forgotten the ability to admit wrong? Instead we’re stuck with claims on many fronts that the Iraq War was both justified and a good idea. In fact it was an unbudgeted, mercenary debacle based on speculative desires to tame the Middle East and put it to American uses.
Cutting to the chase
None of this means I disrespect our military as so many conservatives accuse liberals of doing because we’re willing to criticize the political reasons why our armed forces are used like pawns. Quite the opposite.
Having learned a few things about what sacrifice feels like through athletic endeavors and caring for loved ones that are sick or dying, I hold firm in the conviction that use of our military should be both rare and lethal, and only as necessary.
Like athletes in training for the Olympics or World Championships, our soldiers of all genders should be prepared to engage in combat.
But as we gather to stare at those stars and stripes on Memorial Day, and ponder what it means to engage in military service in both an active and philosophical sense, perhaps it is time to consider whether we as a nation have ultimately earned the right to govern those willing and able to serve.