Monday, May 31, 2010

A sobering Memorial Day wish

Today is Memorial Day ... when we give thanks to all the veterans who paid the ultimate price to keep this country free.

Memorial Day, in America, was created after the Civil War as a way to commemorate all all the soldiers who died to preserve the union. And they should be commemorated -- them and all military personnel who sacrificed their lives for whatever cause our government deemed necessary.

And we should honor them, and commemorate them, regardless of our personal feelings about the wars that resulted in their deaths. Because they had nothing to do with creating the issues, or perpetuating them, or deciding to go to war in the first place.

All they did was obey the orders they got -- whether they volunteered for duty or were drafted. They served. And their deaths not only deprived their families of their presence for years to come, they deprived us, as a society, of their contributions to the fabric of the country.

Every serviceman's (or servicewoman's) death is a tragedy in and of itself. Collectively, every war, and every group of casualties resulting from it, is a mammoth tragedy of unspeakable proportions.

And this is why, today, as on every Memorial Day, in between the parades, observances, cookouts, and whatever else families do to observe the occasion, we stop for a few minutes and reflect on this reality, and not simply give it lip service.

Let's strive to keep our governments honest about the reasons why we send our young men and women off to die. Let's continue to ask probing questions about the necessity of the wars we wage. Let's demand that the government exhaust every other method of breaking through international crises before resorting to armed conflict, even if there are people among us who consider that "weak."

And let's also understand that questioning the necessity -- and even the legality -- of sending our men and women halfway around the world to fight in wars in no way dishonors them.

Perhaps 30 years ago, in its desperation to make their feelings known about the Vietnam War, there were some who resorted to taking it out on the soldiers who returned, safely (physically, at least) from that conflict. That was wrong ... certainly not the proper way to vent frustration about a situation that looked, at least at the time, to be untenable.

Again, most of the guys who were coming home in the late 60s and 70s were draftees. They had no choice. In fact, there were too many of them in the same boat as the protesters ... plucked from their lives upon the penalty of incarceration and shipped out to 'Nam. I'll never understand why protesters chose to target them.

Today, thankfully, we are mindful of the dichotomy between serving your country and waging war. We are grateful to those who -- of their own volition now -- sign up for military service and do our bidding overseas.

We're grateful ... but I'm guessing we'd be more grateful if these men and women were able to skip the honor, and use their stint in the military for the purposes of educating themselves and setting themselves up for the future. The War on Terrorism, ushered in by 9/11, took care of that. Now, in order to get that education, our men and women in the service have to take greater risks. And when any of them get off that airplane, and run into the arms of their families, we're all happy for them to the point of tears.

In 1967, I was a 14-year-old high school freshman, full of righteous indignation over how kids not that much older than I was were being bundled up and sent to "some f'ing jungle" to, in the words of Paul Simon, "fight for a cause long-ago forgotten."

That feeling persisted through high school and into college, the war started to wind down and the draft lottery system was instituted. In 1972, I was No. 84. I can remember we had several women in one of my classes who went around collecting birthdays for all the guys so they could keep track of what their numbers were.

No. 84 was on the cusp of either going or not going. As it turns out, my number never got called. An end to the conflict was negotiated by 1973 and the majority of troops -- including prisoners of war -- returned home. And you forgot about the anger from the previous six or seven years and became truly inspired by the sight of all these soldiers getting off planes ... and for the most part intact.

In 1991, when the first Gulf War began, I was the father of a nine-year-old boy, and I just hoped that the struggled didn't become so protracted, and lengthy, that he became involved in it. We didn't have time to get angry over that one, as it was over almost as fast as it started. And I remember thinking to myself, "Thank God. I dodged a bullet."

My son was 20 when the towers were hit, certainly a ripe age for being drafted into the military. And when the invasion of Iraq began, he was almost 22. Whatever else I thought of George W. Bush, and the war, I was always thankful that he didn't re-institute the draft.

Still, I had mixed feelings about all that. I've always believed that if war is that much of a necessity, if the survival of the national is at stake, then it should truly be a shared sacrifice. It shouldn't be left to someone else's kid to go over there and fight while mine or yours sat the war out.

Yet at the same time, I wasn't for the war. I didn't think it was necessary, and as long as no one was demanding that my son join the service, I wasn't for him volunteering. I might have felt different had I believed in it. But I didn't. And the longer it just kept going and going and going (I think it the worst of it went much longer than anyone could have anticipated), the angrier I got about it.

I read something, just today, that Abraham Lincoln kept the emancipation proclamation as a trump card during the Civil War ... meaning that the war was fought, initially, to preserve the union at a time when the idea of a "union" hadn't really taken hold. But after some of the bloodiest battles of the war had already taken place (Antietam still stands as the single most devastating battle in the history of the U.S., with upward to 23,000 casualties), Lincoln felt that merely "preserving the union" wasn't going to morally justify this bloodbath. So, he turned it into a moral cause by freeing the slaves.

I'm not sure I'm that cynical. I think slavery was always the issue and not merely a convenient way to rally people to the cause. I can see the point of people who say the war wasn't about slavery, but I just don't think they take their point far enough.

The issue over which "states rights" became the initial rallying cry was, after all, slavery. So while the southern states seceded might have been states rights, slavery -- and the government's efforts not so much to abolish it as to contain it -- was a large component of that.

Still, there's no denying that as the war got bloodier and bloodier, Lincoln needed something symbolic to drive the point of it home, and he used the emancipation proclamation to do that. According to the article I read, at least.

I think we saw something similar in Iraq. There are those who remain convinced that the war was all about oil, and in some ways they're right. But only in the broadest of senses. The reason we're so involved over there in the first place is because of oil. Whatever other reasons we have for staying there, and slugging it out, it's useless to deny that access to oil -- which is truly one of our lifebloods -- is paramount among them.

Yet while oil always remains the prize off in the distant horizon, this war was undertaken, I think, as a way to show nations what could happen to them if they insisted on conspiring to produce terrorists to commit mass murder against us. Iraq happened to be an easy target, and it had an identifiable bogeyman as its leader. The scenario was perfect. It was only after things got bogged down, and terrorists and guerrillas showed up to make sure we stayed engaged long after we thought we'd be out of there, that the administration started talking about "ridding the world of the evil dictator."

The point, though, is it doesn't matter. Wars can be absolutely justified (as many believe World War II was), or they can somewhat dubious. Either way, they're immense tragedies, filled with heroes, villains and victims all at the same time.

And while I certainly believe in expressing my gratitude for those who have sacrificed their lives so that I can write something like this without worrying about being killed or arrested for it, I also, sincerely, hope that we never get too caught up in the belief that questioning the government's motivation, or wisdom, in waging war dishonors the troops who fight them.

They are two completely separate things.

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