Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked, and we who fail to prevent them, must share the guilt for the dead.
General Omar N. Bradley (1893-1981)
Army Chief of Staff and first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Here in the United States, we are celebrating the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
It’s generally considered the “unofficial start” of the Summer vacation season and typically features shopping, sales, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, special sporting events, and national media extravaganzas.
But I invite you to please remember its original meaning.
The last Monday of May is an American federal holiday dedicated to the remembrance of all the men and women who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War.
Fifteen Years At War
This weekend, as on every other military-themed holiday, we are getting a non-stop helping of war movies on television.
The glories and sorrows of combat, Hollywood-style, are portrayed through the likes of John Wayne swaggering around the Pacific, George C. Scott swaggering around Europe, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, and their pals outwitting the Germans, etc.
Don’t get me wrong. I love story-telling that features women and men performing heroic deeds.
But there is a strong propaganda element in many of the WW2 films. And it is also interesting to remember that World War Two was a six-year conflict in Europe, and only four in the United States. Yet its catastrophic losses impacted many millions of people directly.
We have now been actively at war in the Middle East for 15 years. But how often does it affect you personally? How many people do you actually know who have served overseas?
And during how much of your lifetime, or or the lives of your children, has our country been at war? Click here to see.
Our Hidden Warriors
I live in North Carolina, which is host to Ft. Bragg, one of the biggest U.S. Army bases in the world, and home to the 18th Army Airborne Corps, the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, and Joint Special Operations command.
Just down the road is Camp LeJeune, the training grounds for the United States Marine Corps, as well as Cherry Point, one of the biggest Marine Air Corps training and readiness sites. We are also home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Pope Air Base, and a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station at Elizabeth City, NC.
Unlike many parts of the country, because of the huge military presence here, our local news reports all of the names of the North Carolina men and women killed in the line of duty. In the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, these lists were mind-numbing.
Has your local news broadcast the names and faces of the fallen each night? In most places, it’s easy to forget about them, since “normal” life has proceeded without a hitch, thanks in large part to the sanitized media treatment of this war.
But here, the tearful departures and reunions are still being broadcast live — month in, month out; year after year. Because, although they may be nearly invisible to the rest of the nation, big military deployments are still underway.
To North Carolinians, these stories are local and personal to us. These men and women who leave our shores, who die in combat, or come home shattered inside and out, are our neighbors and friends.
What is the price they are paying, and what is it for?
Their courage, loyalty, commitment, and their service are forever honorable. But the choices our leaders make about where and why their lives are on the line is once again up for question.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Listen carefully to the saber-rattling rhetoric in this political campaign year. From the candidates for President, to your own local legislators, there is a lot of trigger-happy posturing being conflated with patriotism.
They forget (or maybe have never really understood) that military engagement comes with a terrible price and should only be the choice of last resort. It is a toll that very, very few of the candidates have experienced first hand.
Like the so-called “chicken-hawks” of the Bush administration — the bellicose big talkers so eager to make war, but who skillfully dodged service and danger when it was their turn — we now have more of the same on our political plate this year.
I do not propose that having served in the military is a prerequisite for national leadership. Since we no longer have compulsory military service, that’s not very likely any more.
But I do feel that pugnacious remarks like Ted Cruz’s infamous, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we are about to find out,” is dangerous, delusional, and deeply insulting to the people who actually do have to go in harm’s way.
During this election year’s holiday of mourning, it should be of extreme importance that the voting public be vigilant about macho talk of war, bombing and nuking enemies, and the comforting hubris of manifest destiny in its new clothes — American exceptionalism.
As a democratic nation, careful attention to the voting record and actions (not just the once- or twice-a-year lip service) of our would-be leaders is the only way we can be sure that the sacrifice of our women and men is not made for political expedience, financial gain, and greedy covert agendas.
Lest We Forget
I suggest that we might spend at least a little time this weekend, remembering our beloved dead, and why this holiday was created.
You and your family could take a time-out from your other activities, to place flowers on the graves of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Not everyone buried there still has anyone to commemorate their passing.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Cemetery Administration maintains 131 national
cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites. Since there is not a VA national cemetery in every state, you may also want to check the listing of State veterans cemeteries.
You might also wish to gather with your family to read aloud and discuss Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he wrote in memory of those who fell in the bloody American Civil War conflict.
Finally, let us vow, as peace activist Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy states in his famed Memorial Day Pledge:
I will not raise my precious child to kill your precious child.
And if it is within my power, I will
not hand over my beloved child to others
to kill your beloved child, or
to learn how to kill the one you cherish.
Pax optima rerum.
And so mote it be.