The Best Way To Remember The Fallen – On And After Memorial Day
Memorial Day is one of those days on the national calendar that presents me with ambivalence.
I’m not ambivalent about the meaning and significance of the men and women who have fallen in battle during conflicts this country engaged in. No one can take away the value of the service and sacrifice they made, nor should that be.
The ambivalence aspect comes in when separating the honor of service from the questionable justifications for some of the missions those lives were lost in. Yesterday was not the day to re-litigate that. But broadly speaking, many of us are looking at war through a different lens.
You see – and justifiably so, a lot of flags and flowers, but there is an elephant in the room, people understandably often decide to pretend they don’t see. Why don’t they? Because to see it is to acknowledge some realities that could lead to a frank but uncomfortable discussion – that discussion being how many combat and combat related deaths might be attributable to our country being controlled by unseen influences, or what some might call, “puppetmasters.”
George Carlin called it a “club.” In one of his most profound monologues, Carlin asserted, “it’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.”
“You and I are not in the big club. And by the way, it’s the same big club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe.”
We need to question the premise behind decisions made by our national leaders, when it comes to putting “boots on the ground.” After the national experience of the last few decades, (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria) more of us are asking such questions.
What are the questions? The first one would be, “What specifically has been identified as our vital national interest, in the military engagement the president has decided to commit troops to?”
That is the question that all of the rest must pivot from. Inevitably, there are certain segments of the financial establishment and of the defense contracting sector – which President Dwight D. Eisenhower tagged in his farewell address, the “Military Industrial Complex”, that stand to profit and become more powerful.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
Eisenhower’s apprehension about the growth of both the size of the defense contracting sector and its consanguine relationship with both elected officials and the Pentagon, might have seemed counterintuitive coming from a former high ranking (Five Star) General and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War II, but he would not be the first or the last, to express concern about “misplaced power.”
The sense that Eisenhower had, was one that gained currency after World War I as well.
Major General Smedley Darlington Butler was a combat veteran of the Mexican Revolution and World War I, and subsequently commanded fellow Leathernecks in military engagements from Central America to the Caribbean and the Philippines to China. At his retirement in 1931, he was the most highly decorated Marine in history to that point.
In 1935, General Butler authored a short book titled, “War Is A Racket”, in which he outlined and detailed, in his experience and estimation, the manner in which, the United States armed forces were used callously and opportunistically as mercenary forces as opposed to the proper Constitutional role of defending the nation.
The following paragraphs serve as a summary of the topic matter addressed in the book:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism.
I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916.
I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
It’s essential to analyze whether the modern contemporaries of General Butler and General Eisenhower’s indictments are exerting an out sized extent of influence in the decision making process that leads to the commencement of deployment of armed forces. Other questions proceed from this:
“What is the objective of our involvement in this conflict and what does success of the mission look like? How is it defined and what is the extent of the commitment in blood and treasure?” This ties in with the “vital national interest” question, particularly in light of our involvement in the Vietnam “police action” (it was never a declared war), and North Korea.
The French had been at war in Vietnam (actually known at that time as French Indochina) for five years (1954 – 1959) and were ultimately no more or no less successful than we were after 10 plus years. France’s armed struggle to retain its colonial holdings in Southeast Asia, were an unmitigated catastrophe.
A lesson could have been learned from their experience – and some highly qualified historians have made the case that John F. Kennedy had done just that in October of 1963, but according to the most up to date scholarship, his plans to actualize the lesson, were interrupted by his assassination the next month.
Next, “How reliable actually is the intelligence that leadership is relying on to establish the judgment of putting American lives in harm’s way?” This is as critically important as the first question about the objective, because there have been too many instances where it has been determined after the fact that the intel was either faulty, fictional or contrived. (Think Vietnam and Iraq as two notable examples.)
A further question is whether the global forward deployment of the United States military is sustainable over time – in our case, with the country facing a national debt that is now at $25.5 Trillion and counting, coupled with a crumbling national infrastructure.
Of this, President Eisenhower, who was widely resented by the establishment of his era because he cut almost as many weapon development programs as he approved, asked:
“The jet plane that roars overhead costs three quarters of a million dollars. That’s more than a man will make in his lifetime. What world can afford this kind of thing for long?”
Today, the numbers involve more decimal points. Billions, not millions, but the sustainability question with a nation as deeply in debt as ours, is still, maybe even more so, relevant.
Speaking at the Eisenhower Library last year, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates broached the subject of the governmental and political addiction of accumulating ever more expensive and multitudinous armaments and weapon platforms:
“Does the number of warships we have, and are building, really put America at risk, when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined — 11 of which are our partners and allies? Is it a dire threat that by 2020, the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China? These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today.”
But aside from the long or even mid term sustainability of the expense involved, another moral hazard attends to the unbridled shopping sprees for the implements of war.
Despite the fact that these purchases are couched in terms of “deterrence” – an argument also used to justify the assigned role of the military as “Global Police” – the reality is that when you have an excessive array of such an arsenal, it increases, not decreases the likelihood of their use.
When a dispute between America and a rival breaks out, it is increasingly difficult for the foreign policy voices that advocate an intensified effort towards diplomatic solutions to rise above the din of militarism.
The noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, is credited with the concept (“Maslow’s Hammer”), if not the precise expression, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Similar to this, is the English cultural reference from the 1800’s, of the “Birmingham Screwdriver.” It’s summed up along these lines, “Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.”
And if you have a big enough hammer, in the form of a massive arsenal and close to a quarter of a million active duty troops, every contingency that arises looks like the ideal target for it, to the exclusion of any other approach. Diplomatic engagement is pro-forma and largely peripheral.
Donald Trump makes political hay out of dismissing America’s participation in global trade, while in the next breath, claims that he has “rebuilt the U.S. military.” Trump voters seem immune to the irony in this, being that America’s role as a leader in international trade is almost always the first premise of those who opposed trimming back the defense budget.
Defense hawks argue that you have to have robust global forward deployment to vigorously defend the hegemony of multi-national corporations based in the United States. The reality is that the positions of anti global trade on the one side, and the maintenance of American military bases in 172 countries on every continent on the other, are both harmful extremes.
China, while maintaining a steady pace at modernizing their weapons systems, is taking advantage of the trade war standoff that Trump has instigated. They see expanding their investment footprint as more beneficial to their goal of achieving status as the global superpower than involving themselves in sectarian and tribal conflicts.
Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, graduate of West Point and Princeton, and Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at the Boston University Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, served in the Army, became an academic, and is now a writer.
He is the author, co-author, or editor of a dozen books, among them Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, American Empire, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. His investment in these topics goes beyond mere intellectual curiosity. Bacevich himself, is a Gold Star parent. His son, Andrew John Bacevich, also an Army officer, died fighting in the Iraq War in May 2007.
General Smedley Butler would have considered Col. Bacevich, a kindred spirit. Bacevich was asked to attend a poetry recital in Boston this March, that was canceled due to the viral outbreak. The poem he was to have recited was “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines,” written in 1899 by William Vaughn Moody.
Here is an excerpt:
Praise, and never a whispered hint
but the fight he fought was good;
Col. Bacevich comments here that, “In actuality, the fight was anything but good. It was ill-advised and resulted in great evil. ‘On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines’ expresses a demand for reckoning with that evil. Americans of Moody’s generation rejected that demand, just as Americans today balk at reckoning with the consequences of our own ill-advised wars.”
Let him never dream that his bullet’s scream
went wide of its island mark,
Home to the heart of his darling land
where she stumbled and sinned in the dark.
Bacevich makes special note of the last 4 stanzas above, that:
“at the end of the 19th century, the United States stumbled and sinned in the dark by waging a misbegotten campaign to advance nakedly imperial ambitions. At the beginning of the 21st century, new wars became the basis of comparable sin. The war of Moody’s time and the wars of our own have almost nothing in common except this: In each instance, through their passivity disguised as patriotism, the American people became tacitly complicit in wrongdoing committed in their name.”
And Bacevich’s point is well taken. Of course we should memorialize the fallen and honor the intentions behind their sacrifice. But at the same time, we should reflect and indeed, grieve that in too many instances, their deaths were the result of a foreign policy agenda that didn’t serve their or their family’s best interests. This needs to be the focus of a national conversation.
Naturally, the rebuttal to this, coming from the political right, is that the men and women lost in our post Vietnam engagements were volunteers. They signed up willingly. They embraced the vision of “defending America” and understood the price.
Some of that is true in particular cases. The caveat to that is the degree to which militarism has been propagandized to equate with “patriotism”, which is now camouflaged nationalism.
Recruiting is enhanced by staged events in sports stadiums, where the Pentagon pays tens of millions of dollars, likely considerably more, to every sports league you can name, from the NFL and NBA to NASCAR, for what the late Senator John McCain, dubbed “Paid Patriotism.”
It’s very seductive and it not only fuels the appetite for more virtual battle video games where no one actually dies and you can start the war over, but also instills in the sub conscious of the intended targets, the sense that even if you were blown up by a IED or slain with an armor piercing round, you would be eligible for immortality in the form of these ceremonial tributes to the dead.
The actual costs attached to these wars is an abstraction. Flag draped coffins replace the horror of bodies rendered unrecognizable as the result of U.S. foreign policy – the architecture of endless illegal wars. To nationalists and neo-Conservatives alike – body bags and men and women coming back crippled with missing limbs or PTSD, are the cost of doing business as usual.
Without explicitly saying so, the underlying view is that some have to die so that the rest of us can be about the routine of detachment, the pursuit of the chimeras we chase. That’s just how it is, time to move on. It’s a luxury that Gold Star families don’t enjoy. The best they can do is to warm themselves in the cold comfort of our empty rationalizations.
Michael Serazio examines this in the New York Times:
That term itself — sacrifice — seems somehow stripped of context and redeployed for gauzy emotion rather than the sober duties of democratic citizenship that Americans have otherwise abdicated: We feel for service members and families’ burden (how can one not?), but we seem to have collectively, politically, decided not to think much about the open-ended commitments they have been assigned to that require it. Fetishizing “freedom,” however generically rendered, mirrors a foreign policy on autopilot.
Another component to this is the manner in which the economy has evolved from a basis of productivity in a wide economic field of national activity, to the narrow distribution of wealth generated by financialization. The churning of financial assets and financial products has become the focus, leading to income inequality.
And as such, many young men and women, see recruitment to military service as the only viable alternative to the new reality of dead end jobs that don’t sustain anything that resembles a traditional American middle class lifestyle. It’s a risk reward equation.
Whatever can be done to glamorize that reality, is done, to ensure its continuity. Does examining all this with sobriety necessarily mean that we are downgrading the value of service in the military? Far from it. If anything, we’re holding it in more genuine regard by demanding answers from the people we’ve elected to make the decisions about war on our behalf.
Circling back to some of the issues we unpacked at the front end of this, more fundamental questions remain. Is it logically inconsistent to cleave to a philosophy of pro-national defense and simultaneously, anti-war.
Can we support the troops but at the same time, examine the basis and validity of the mission? Can we remember with dignity, those who fought, while at the same time, take a hard look at what constitutes the distinction between national defense and that of committing to military opportunism that has not even the approximation of an expiration date or the semblance of a universal national interest or “defending freedom”?
Memorial Day has come and gone, yes, but these questions cry out, nay – demand to be answered.