May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

“War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that he too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.” —Karl Kraus

Mostly I think of Memorial Day and I conjure up images of marching in the high school band from the town square, where a small cluster of pine trees sheltered a glass-enclosed plaque listing the names of those who had served in World War II, down Elm Street to the American Legion, where we got those little paper cups of ice cream, magically divided into half chocolate and half vanilla, along with a little flat wooden spoon to scoop with.

The occasion was both somber and festive. We were there to honor the fallen. The town's veterans would dig out their old uniforms and lead the parade down streets lined with townspeople waving little flags. Taps would be played, our hands over our hearts as we were taught to do in grade school when each day began with the Pledge of Allegiance. At the same time, we were there to celebrate the enduring American experience, where all our wars were good and all our soldiers brave heroes.

Those simpler times have faded. Wars aren't what they used to be. Wars used to be fought to retain or regain territory. Then along came Vietnam, which stripped away all the pretenses and left us with body counts from battles fought for hills that were immediately abandoned. Wars used to be fought to defeat the enemy. Then along came nation-building, where it wasn't enough just to win, we had to remake the enemy in our own image. Wars used to end and soldiers would come home. Then came the never-ending deployments of Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars used to be fought by citizen-soldiers. Then along came the all-volunteer army and the crowd-sourced army, where people get each other wound up on social media until someone snaps and runs amok.

War in the 21st Century will become more dehumanized as we deploy armies of robots and drones to fight our battles for us. We are perilously close to where we can just push the "Easy" button when we decide to go to war. Robert E. Lee observed after a great victory, "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." I worry that we will grow too comfortable with war as the role of human soldiers diminishes. We had a dozen casualties in the Balkan war fought under President Clinton. Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a tenth of the casualties in Vietnam. Of course, you can be sure that the cost for those caught up in the battle will continue to be high.

Even as the number of killed declines, the wounds, both visible and invisible, mount ever higher. The disturbing rates of suicides and sexual assaults among our soldiers are visible manifestations of the hidden wounds left untreated from the war. Fewer may die on the field of battle, but more are dying slowly in the aftermath.

Here is my Memorial Day message. There is no such thing as a good war. War is an unalloyed evil. War is never inevitable, rarely necessary, and almost certainly not worth it in terms of outcome versus expectation. Lewis Mumford wrote many years ago that war, like human sacrifice, will some day become extinct. That day still seems to be a long ways off.

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