Memorial Day. A day of remembrance. A day to give thanks to those who have laid down their lives to defend our nation. A day to mourn their passing. As we reflect upon how much we owe them…do we think adequately on how we are to repay them, and all others who may follow in their footsteps?
We acknowledge that we owe the fallen a debt of thanks. The question is, do we owe them a debt of apology? Could their deaths have been avoided? If so, did we do all we could with our hard-won rights as citizens to keep them out of needless combat? Did we do all we could to demand that they be adequately equipped once they were deployed? Have we done all we could to help them heal and readjust once they were out of military service? The answer to all those questions, I believe is, sadly, no.
We live in a free country. That in itself is a rare and precious birthright that far too many take for granted. The soldier pays the price for that. Speaking as the son of a former Polish freedom fighter and prisoner of war, I feel very grateful, as my father does, that the United States army was there to help liberate Poland from Nazi occupation.
Of course, war is very different today that it was during World War II. The death is the same of course, but not the rationale. The days of nation states going to war with legal declarations of hostility, clear lines and objectives, and decisive surrender followed by armistice are long gone. Since WWII, it’s been about limited interference in the internal conflicts of other nations or regions. (Limited in every sense except the dying, of course.) Constitutional requirements of Congressional declaration of war are long-gone, too. As are clear objectives and clear beginnings or endings. It begins when the President says it does and ends…who knows when? Today, in terms of foreign policy, presidents are like kings or despots who can send our nation’s soldiers to war by royal decree. And, for reasons of politics or personal gain. That’s not to say our nation often finds itself on the dark side of history. The enemies our nation’s warriors have fought have been a pretty nasty lot. From the despots of North Korea to the often vicious Viet Cong to the tyrant Saddam Hussein. But, as in any war, the innocent dead far outnumber the soldiers. And, to topple one despot may be like kicking over a wasp’s nest that brings far more death and misery in the chaos that follows. That doesn’t diminish the noble sacrifice of the American soldier, but it sure as blazes puts on civilian society the moral burden of justifying what they died for.
So, as we enter the second decade of our most recent undeclared, formless, seemingly endless war, the question stands: Have we as citizens of the United States truly done our duty to honor our nation’s soldiers? More than that, to honor the covenant between citizen and defender? We acknowledge that our lives are in their hands, but do we acknowledge that their lives are in ours? Their job is obviously the more demanding, but ours is the more complex. As citizens of a free nation, it is our civic duty to choose our leaders wisely and yes, to question and debate what those leaders do once they’re in office. It’s easier not to, of course. It’s easier to just mind your own business, wave the flag and blindly follow the guy in office, as long as it’s someone else who ends up doing the fighting and the dying overseas. After 9/11, we wanted revenge, and didn’t much care where it came from. We blindly followed our president then. Didn’t matter who he was, or even if he knew what he was doing. He was the only leader we had, and like all politicians, he told us what we wanted, or needed, to hear. And, as always, the soldiers ended up paying the price. Easy answers, gratifying slogans and tall promises. And, the soldier always pays the price. Over ten years later, the soldier is still paying the price, with no end in sight.
Historians will judge our wars as they always do, with 20/20 hindsight. But, those of us in the here and now owe it to those in the armed forces to question what our presidents do. As a people, we feel a strong bond of loyalty to our soldiers, and that’s laudable. But, the only way we seem able to express that loyalty is through blind obedience to our presidents, many of whom have never served in armed combat a day in their lives. Criticism of a seated president, even an unpopular one, in time of military engagement, is blindly equated with treason. To support the troops, we have to support the Commander-in-Chief, right or wrong.
Easy. Simple. Not necessarily a good idea.
If you have some selfish jerk or lunatic in office (and, let’s face it: We’ve had a few) who orders our soldiers to march off a cliff, then what is our patriotic duty as citizens? To get behind the troops and help push them off that cliff? Or, to throw obstacles in their path to try to keep them alive? It’s not the soldier’s responsibility to question the war. It’s ours. Yes, many prefer to say we elect the leader, the leader leads and the soldier dies. Those are our assigned roles. But, we’ve seen leaders leave office in disgrace. We’ve allowed…yes, ALLOWED…leaders to lead us into wars based on false information. We’ve swallowed lies packaged in ribbons that read “Mission Accomplished” only to find ourselves looking on row after row of gravestones and flag-draped coffins and no more answers to the question “Why?” Are we even still asking?
At some point, the line between war and peace blurs. The deaths of our service men and women fade into background static. The idea of war being not only undeclared and lawless but actually perpetual, as in Orwell’s 1984, seems to have become our new way of life. The young and the brave continue to march off to war because they feel it’s right, and the rest of us just toil along at our jobs through one president after another, barely noticing the death that goes on and on. No end in sight. New enemies rise from the ashes of the old, the situation growing worse, not better. A generation has come of age in this war. Will the day come when no one can remember not being at war? Some say the nature of the enemy has changed, and we must change with it. But, are we just digging the hole deeper? Is anyone bothering to ask?
The drones kill, and kill and kill. The engineers at M.I.T. devise increasingly sophisticated robotic systems that may someday be used to kill with increasing efficiency. Will the robot killing machine someday replace the human soldier? If so, will war become so easily managed from the relative comfort of a distant control room that we as a society find absolutely no reason to even question its existence or try to avoid it? How does a society know exactly when war ceases to be an occasional instrument of national survival or necessity, and becomes a way of life?
Today, we honor their memory. But, do we honor the reason they died? Do we even remember?