Today we honor the memory of those who died while serving the country in our armed forces, a tradition that began after the Civil War. Scarcely a decade has gone by since then that we haven't added more names to the rolls maintained in town squares all over the country. By some counts, there were 225 conflicts and wars fought during the twentieth century, resulting in nearly 46 million casualties. Just in my lifetime, we have sent American soldiers to fight in four major wars and several smaller actions, adding tens of thousands of new names to the lists of the dead.
For the most part, we fought in wars of choice; we sent our men and women to remote places in the world to defend the national interest, a usefully elastic notion that could be stretched to include just about anything. Winston Churchill used the phase "an unnecessary war" to describe World War II. Imagine what he would have to say about the Vietnam War or the second invasion of Iraq, two wars that were justified by the slimmest of pretexts, one by a single shell that struck an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin during a naval battle the Americans initiated, followed by a second encounter that never happened, the other by weapons of mass destruction that existed only in the mind of the man we set out to destroy.
Throughout it all, our soldiers fought bravely under incredibly adverse circumstances, from the harsh winters of Korea to the intense heat of Vietnam and Iraq to the valleys of death in Afghanistan. They did what they had to do and came home. World War II veterans were greeted as the conquering heroes they were. After that it went downhill quickly. Korean war veterans were forgotten. Vietnam veterans were shunned. The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were given a slap on the back and then sent back to fight again and again and again. We got better at treating the wounds easily seen, but the wounds you couldn't see--the damage to our soldiers' hearts and minds, the havoc wreaked in families by extended deployments--those wounds remain largely untreated. The answer today is pretty much the same as it was when I got out of the Army in 1970: you're on your own.
Memorial Day should be a day not merely to remember the brave few who
gave everything for their country, but to remind ourselves of the role
played by the indifferent many who stood silently by while the
politicians started wars that never needed to be fought. And let's not
leave out the diplomats, soldiers, and spies who should have known
better. Maybe Lyndon Johnson didn't understand the long and tortured
history of Vietnam that led up to our involvement, but the career
diplomats for damn sure should have known what we were getting into.
Maybe George Bush really believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in
9/11, but there were many in his councils of government who should have
and did know better. They stood silently by as another generation of young men and women were sent off to die far from home and loved ones.
Until we absolutely refuse to accept war as an alternative, the cycle will never end. There's already been too many wars, too many lives lost or shattered on all sides. We need to do better. We have to do better.