Memorial Day Thoughts
Below is a transcript of the Memorial Day podcast, released on the evening of May 30, 2021.
This is the Memorial Day weekend, and my wife has been trying to encourage me to talk about it. I have to admit I’ve been reluctant to do this; while I deeply honor those who have served our nation in its time of need, I also feel that our politicians have abused the military and created situations that unnecessarily put our soldiers in harm’s way.
To keep a fresh supply of motivated young men and women interested in serving in our armed forces, politicians use occasions like Memorial Day to focus on the heroism and glory of serving our nation. To be sure, we do need a standing army; we do have enemies in this world. But here’s the thing; many, if not most, of these enemies have been forged out of the embers of American hegemony expressed through tyrannical business practices backed up by a superior military. For example, how often have we become entangled in Middle Eastern affairs due to national security concerns over the price of oil? Or how have we corrupted Central America for the want of the price of bananas? Have a look at the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, and you’ll start to understand how our nation, along with its close western allies, have pilfered and corrupted other nations in pursuit of building a superior corporatocracy and leaving it to our soldiers to clean up the mess. We then heap glory upon these soldiers in order to put a shining bow around an ugly pile of death and destruction.
That’s not to say that we haven’t fought the good fight once in a while. We fought against fascism and totalitarianism during World War 2. It was a good fight because it was a principled fight. It forced us to choose, as a nation, what we really stand for. But it was also a defensive war; the forces of fascism and totalitarianism directly threatened us, and we responded in kind.
I agree that we often don’t get to choose our wars. Sometimes things just happen and we find ourselves threatened. But just keep in mind that often - far more often than not I believe - these wars are the direct result of politicians failing at their most precious duty; to avert disaster through responsible negotiation where every side wins. Too often, negotiation breaks down into a zero-sum game - a game in which our soldiers become unwitting pawns.
Regardless of how we arrived here, Memorial Day stands as a day that our nation honors those among us who have served in the armed forces and protect our nation from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.
And I do honor these individuals, especially those who have suffered loss. Loss of life, loss of limb, loss of innocence. I honor those who have given the full measure of devotion. Especially those who have done so in lands far away.
Here’s a personal story. A few years ago, I walked among the seemingly endless rows of tombstones at the top of the hill overlooking the beaches of Normandy. Every one of those tombstones were meticulously lined up in rows and columns, and each one stood perfectly straight - not leaning at all. They were obviously all well maintained and looked after daily. The surrounding grass was cleanly cut without a single weed or blemish or bare spot. The trees were healthy and trimmed. The summer breeze swept through the leaves in a subtle hushed, respectful whisper. And on one tombstone, I spotted a bird dropping. I pulled out my wallet, withdrew a credit card and used it to scrape off the tombstone, and then I used a part of my shirt to clean the stained area and restore the tombstone to its pristine state. And as I did this, I talked to the spirit of the young man whose name appeared on the tombstone. I thanked him. And then I just started crying. My teenage son, who was with me at that moment, sensed my sudden rush of emotion, and he silently and respectfully stepped away, giving me some space. He didn’t want me to see him watching his father cry. I’m not certain why I cried, really. I didn’t know the young man whose tombstone I cleaned. But I felt such a deep sense of loss for him. He gave everything. I’m sure all he wanted was to go home, but instead he died violently in a land far away from his mother. His whole life taken from him. It just wasn’t fair that he should be in that place. And here I am, 70-some years later, doing what seems so insignificant, but it was all I could do. I talked to the young man’s spirit for some time, then stood up, turned and walked away. I was never in the military, so it wasn’t appropriate that I salute him. But I had paid my respects in a different way.
Somewhere, 70-some years ago, a mother cried. Her life would never be the same. Nor would the life of his father. If you have children, you can begin to understand that there is no greater love than what a parent has for his or her children. Losing that love in such a tragic, horrific way is really the ultimate sacrifice.
This is the price of war. It’s not the suffering and the dying so much as it is the loss of what could have been. Those listening to this podcast; you have a life. You have time to do things. Time to love. Time to work. Time to play. Time to make a difference in someone else’s life. But those that die to protect our nation give that all up; they never want to give it up, but they put themselves at risk, and they understand what might come of their lives. And all they ask is that we citizens be careful with the trust they’ve given us. All they ask is that we do more than just set aside a day each year to pay tribute; rather, that we devote our best efforts to keep them out of harm’s way in the first place. That we find a way to settle our differences without sending our soldiers to fight. Because every soldier that fights has a mother. And a father.
And I further believe that those fortunate enough to survive combat don’t want to be thought of as heroes. The real heroes are the ones that don’t come back. But of those who do come back, we, as a society, owe them everything. Medical care. Mental care. An opportunity to put their lives back on track, whether through college or a trade school or all the necessary training for whatever profession they choose.
I’m afraid we fall short in that obligation. Our politicians seem to find the money when they want to fight a war, but they don’t seem to find the money to take care of those fortunate enough to return from those wars and need our help.
Adding insult to this injury, many politicians glorify war. They invent fantasies of heroism. They talk of America’s manifest destiny. And then they back up all that rhetoric with fear. Fear of weapons of mass destruction. Fear of the loss of American values. Fear of impending doom to our way of life. The combination of glory and fear becomes a deadly mixture for our soldiers. It unnecessarily puts them in harm’s way.
And lately, I’m afraid, it’s gotten worse. Remember that our soldiers promise to protect our nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic. The raw fear stoked by our politicians was, until recently, directed mostly at foreign nations. But now the rhetoric has shifted; there’s talk of the threat of immigration. There’s talk of the threat of Black Lives Matter. There’s talk of the threat of antifa. And all this talk - all this fear - has stoked the embers of anger. We have begun to fight among ourselves. Our nation’s capitol building was attacked - we must never forget that. Countless incidents of racial violence have flared up across our nation. Those that try to reconcile this fear by asking us all to reach out to each other and understand our nation’s complex history of racial violence and come to terms with it are shouted down from the floors of state legislatures across the land.
Our nation increasingly sorts itself into two warring camps. Ordinary citizens arm themselves like soldiers - complete with assault rifles, knives, bear spray and body armor. They seek to find within themselves the heroism and glory that our politicians allude to in their emotionally misguided speeches.
And the result is that we’re now seeing the potential activation of the “domestic” side of the soldiers’ promise. The police have become increasingly militarized. President Trump last year threatened to use the National Guard to “dominate the streets” and to “deploy the United States military to quell protests” over the killing of George Floyd.
Our soldiers, the ones we choose to honor on this Memorial Day, may soon find themselves fighting not so far from home.
Are politicians to blame for all this mess? Partially, I think. But I believe it is more the corporatocracy, which for many years focused on exploiting unsuspecting people in foreign lands, have now turned their focus on America itself. It has become acceptable for corporations to effectively put politicians on their payroll - either directly with unlimited campaign donations, or indirectly by giving promises of a lucrative job after a politician’s political career has concluded. The corporatocracy now focuses on domestic targets - American citizens themselves - and I’m afraid - military action will follow. I really hope I’m wrong about this, but I fear I’m right, because the precedent has already been set in foreign lands.
So as we wave our flags on Memorial Day and honor those who serve, those who have served and especially those who gave their last, final measure of devotion, remember that we must honor our soldiers every day. We don’t honor them by clapping for them or cheering for them or by spreading fantasies of honor and glory, but by taking it upon ourselves to protect them. To keep them out of harm’s way. To try as hard as we can toward working out our differences with one another in a way that doesn’t involve assault rifles, knives, bear spray and body armor. And to dedicate ourselves to holding our corporatocracy to account. To stop the exploitation of our own people as well as people in foreign nations. Because we know - from painful experience - that conflict takes root in exploitation, and conflict is what puts our soldiers at risk.