Saturday, May 25, 2013

Some sober thoughts on Memorial Day 2013

We've all seen it ... at every sports venue, every school function ... the moms and dads who have been sent off to God-forsaken areas in the middle east, and who have come back and surprised their children, providing camera-ready human emotion and drama.

Even if you're a bit cynical about the manipulation that goes hand in hand with this, it's hard not to get swept up in it, and difficult not to get a lump in your throat over the pure joy in seeing families united after months and months of being separated.

The only problem? Such orchestrated homecomings tend to obscure the reasons these children have not seen their mothers and fathers for those months and months at a time. Are they still valid? Is it still that necessary to be sending moms and dads overseas to fight? Is there ever an upside to war in general? Or is war, as Edwin Starr sang so long ago, good for "absolutely nothing."

These are tough questions. There's a lot of gray area here. There aren't any easy answers.

Have we become too quick with the trigger finger? Have we worked arduously to prevent conflict from spreading or are we, at times, a little too willing to assert ourselves into an unstable fray in hopes that our sheer might will tilt the resolution in our favor? Do we even consider the reasons that terrorism -- which is why we feel compelled to get involved in these skirmishes in the first place -- has become such an effective weapon against us?

Sometimes I wonder. And that's where I'm at on Memorial Day 2013.

I do not say I have all the answers ... just the questions. People far more intelligent, and far more seasoned at handling thorny crises, are left to figure it all out. But I think we need to ask.

 But I will tell you this: While I have an enormous amount of respect and gratitude for those who have been thrust into harm's way to carry out a mission they had no hand in defining, we should be mature enough, in this country at least, to be able to make the distinction between supporting our troops unconditionally and questioning the decisions that have sent them into action.

 So right off, let me reiterate I have nothing but praise and admiration for our nation's soldiers, and join in thanking them when I see them (they never seem to know what to do when I go up to them in airports, or in other places, and simply shake their hands and say "thank you." I guess it's not a reaction they expect).

But I'm just not down with leaving it at that. I always want to say, after the thank you, "but it's still a huge tragedy that you had to go and risk your life trying to dodge improvised explosive devices, snipers and other assorted forms of military artillery." It's not a very pleasant subject to bring up, so I do not. But it's always there.

I'm with Edwin Starr. Wars is only good for the undertaker. As just as some wars may be, it's still war. It is still the single most barbaric, cruel, vicious, devastating, immoral and just plain sick act in which human beings can take part. When you put all the nationalism aside, and take our territorial instincts into consideration, the pursuit of ever-more-deadly weaponry for the purposes of killing people is still, in a word, insane. It's one of those cases where you begin to wish that the ability to think and solve complex problems, with which the process of evolution blessed us, could have been awarded to the lions, tigers and bears. Maybe they'd have figured out a way to use them without unleashing the devastating destruction we have.

Beyond the generally insane, war tends to bring out depravity at its worst in areas that often have nothing to do with why the combatants are fighting. I'm talking about the way prisoners of war are treated and the atrocities that occurred in Vietnam and Iraq (and, undoubtedly, in other places). They are as easy to understand as they are impossible to justify.

If you stick a group of intensely-trained youths in the middle of widespread hostility being waged against them, how on earth to you expect them to act civilly toward the people who have been shooting them and putting IEDs in their paths? If a war has escalated, and spiraled, so far out of control that little kids and old ladies are booby trapped with explosives, how do you expect soldiers to do anything else but burn the village down when they get the opportunity?

This is simply depravity matching depravity. Like I said, impossible to justify; easy to understand. There's a big difference.

Terrorism, as well, is equally impossible to justify, but just as equally easy to understand. Some of the regions in which we've concentrated our military cannot fight us back conventionally. They don't have near the weaponry or the technical sophistication to produce what we can produce ... unless they have nuclear weapons to wave in front of our faces. It's little wonder, for example, we went into Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 and -- to use the popular vernacular -- kicked ass. To have done anything else would have been the military scandal of the millennium.

Terrorism, to those without the conventional power to defeat us, helps even the score. It puts us on the the defensive ... causes us to be a little less sure of ourselves. And it is the fervent hope of the terrorists to give us an idea of the terror ordinary citizens in places such as Iraq -- people who have much less say in what their government does than we do -- feel when the bombs come raining down on them.

Again ... this is another reason why we need to be pretty damn careful about what we do, and where we do it. Chances are very good that even in a thoroughly justifiable offensive, the backlash, in the future, will include terrorism of some sort. Saddam Hussein's way of fighting back during the first Gulf War was to aim SCUDS at Israel. That's pretty much the same type of terror bombing the Nazis visited upon England during WWII.

When it comes to random attacks that could spring up anywhere, and by anyone, we're not in our element. How do we respond? Militarily? Legally? With covert ops? by branding all Muslims as enemies of the state? Profiling them? Perhaps there isn't a foolproof way.

Perhaps, sadly, terrorism may end up being the cost of doing business in the Middle East (and beyond) today. Each time you ratchet up the hostility or increase your unwanted presence in an unstable region (even if you think it's justified), you invite a more depraved reaction to it. That terrorism rears its ugly head at tragically inopportune times (not that there's ever an opportune time), or that it is so unconscionably indiscriminate, should be of no surprise. It not only destroys physically, it destroys even more psychologically.

Let's see, on July 4, how many Bostonians choose to stay home and watch the Pops on TV. I'm betting attendance is way down.

Once in a great while, someone comes along whose unparalleled paranoia forms a deadly alliance with a voracious appetite for hatred and cruelty ... someone whose mission is to throw the world into mass chaos, and someone to whom a military response is required. His name was Adolf Hitler. And while he may have died in 1945, the repercussions of all he did are still keenly felt today.

If you want one reason why the Israelis just might appear to be a little quick on the trigger, or a little too uncompromising in some of their policies and positions, consider that many of them, still, are children and grandchildren of people who had first-hand knowledge of concentration camps. Or, worse, they are children and grandchildren of people who died in those camps. The Jews in Europe were victims of a systematic, decade-long campaign of racism and hatred instigated by Hitler that culminated, by 1941, with the "Final Solution."

I'd imagine you, too, would have serious issues with people whose avowed mission is to wipe your country off the face of the earth. And you might see things from a different perspective sitting in the middle of a region 100 percent hostile to you as opposed to sitting on the Canadian border where the worst that could happen to you might be having a moose or a bear step in front of your car.

Of course, with all that, even eternal vigilance needs parameters. No one with a powerful military should have carte blanche. To me, the higher the military capability, the more checks and balances are needed to keep it from becoming the big stick hits innocent people over the head. And the more leaders entrusted with managing massive military machines should have to listen to the Hans Blix's of the world who endeavor to turn the bellicose hyperbole down a notch.

If there is to be war, let the United States jump in only when all other avenues to stop it have been exhausted. Let the United States not, ever, be the aggressor. And let us demand of our government a clear objective and a clear moral reason why taking such draconian measures is absolutely necessary. The minute it appears as if we're pulling reasons to justify war out of thin air, that should be our signal to put the brakes on and reassess.

Let us not be shielded from war's cruelty. Let us understand exactly what we're doing and what it means when we send our young people to remote locations to kill and be killed. Let our visceral reactions to such carnage be a part of the process that stops the madness.

Let war not be used to satisfy someone's geopolitical agenda.

Let us stand ready to confront the type of megalomaniac who could inflict catastrophic carnage on the world if left unchecked. But at the same time let us be very judicious of how we label those with whom we have geopolitical disagreements. Saddam Hussein may have been a tyrant, but I'm not sure he was ever the next Hitler.

Finally, let us, as free people with the right to pick and choose those who represent us, acknowledge our imperfections. Let us be able to cast a cynical eye on all the bellicose rhetoric without seeming as if we're lacking in support for our troops. I think just the opposite. I think those cynical eyes and uncomfortable questions support our troops in a much more meaningful way than a few shared memes on Facebook.

And that is where I am on Memorial Day 2013.

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