|Download PDF of this full issue: v50n1.pdf (30.8 MB)|
By Bill Shunas
Another Memorial Day approaches. Once again we have thoughts of someone important to us, of someone who died in combat. Or maybe he or she died afterward. The result of being in combat. Of Agent Orange. Or PTSD. Or of a lingering wound. Or of Gulf War or some other syndrome. Or of a broken heart. Some think of this more often or with more intensity than others. But we remember. It is noteworthy that those who memorialize the fallen soldiers may have and often do have opposing opinions of the worth of the war in which the fallen have lost their lives. Those of us who opposed that war see the waste in dying for that war's objective or lack thereof. Those who supported the war find meaning in the sacrifice made on the war's behalf. Those with either opinion or with no opinion do feel intensely about the dead.
I am of the opinion that almost all the wars and police actions undertaken by the US in my lifetime were wrong. (I still wonder if the US restoring the Aristide government in Haiti was a good thing. Or if Bosnia was humanitarian.) If those who we're to honor on Memorial Day died as a result of the many unjust wars we fought, what does that say? You made the ultimate sacrifice for the wrong reasons. How do you tell that to a gold star parent or spouse? This is a person looking for meaning. This is someone who desperately wants the meaning to be noble.
Like any organization, there were some bad apples in the military. Most of us served honorably. We made the sacrifices that come along with being a soldier or sailor or a marine. We put up with it. We were brave. We provided a service to our nation's people. Unfortunately, we acted so while carrying out bad policy and/or fighting unjust wars, and that makes the sacrifice hurt one even more. You might say that - our political leadership being what it is - a certain number of people - one way or another - would have to serve. That means a steady stream of Americans put in harm's way. A certain percentage of that stream will die and become the honorees on Memorial Day.
This country certainly has no monopoly on offering up it's young in pursuit of a war that shouldn't be fought or drags on too long. Think of World War I when European governments prolonged the slaughter in those trenches. We are usually guided by civilians who move us around like chess pieces made to sacrifice for the king. In these modern days, it's not a king but one suit or another. Are any of these wars good wars? Those who made the sacrifices in World War II had righteousness on their side. Hitler can do that to you. The soldiers and sailors and marines that went may have fought the Good Fight. Still, it had little to do with our rights and freedoms. The Wehrmacht wasn't going to be marching down Broadway. We had an ocean between us.
Over the last decades, the sacrifices of US military personnel have been more honored than since World War II. In a perverted way, respect for our sacrifices has been used by (civilian) hawks to push for men and women to sacrifice more in prolonged wars. Take Afghanistan. Negotiations with the Taliban stumble ahead. All sides in the conflict want something out of a peace treaty. One thing pushed by US negotiators to justify further military involvement is that the over two thousand plus who have died there can't be allowed to have died in vain so give us what we want in whatever damn treaty you sign. If they don't, we are willing to stay and continue this war - and lose a few more soldiers each month for whom we must stay and then lose a few more in an endless cycle.
It's not only American deaths that are used to promote war. We have tended toward fighting wars where we befriend some element in a civil war. When the war eventually tapers off or ends our allies are left to the mercy of whoever now controls the country. So the argument goes that we should sacrifice more for these allies. The reality is that we're going to leave eventually anyway and leave our allies hanging. Again look at Afghanistan. We will leave a government that is too weak to fight off the warlords. Civilian cooks and interpreters and supportive soldiers that we worked with will be exposed and targeted. So should we do battle for another five years? Will the Kabul government be any stronger if we stay another five years? I think not. At best we don't know. But these hawks are willing to risk more of us to find out. The hawks will pay tribute on Memorial Day. Some will truly memorialize the fallen. And some will shed false tears. That's what you do to enable you to pursue more belligerent policies. Maybe there are guilt feelings. But they are blinded by some ideology that justifies sending more in harm's way.
War results in death which results in Memorial Day(s). It is necessary and honorable that Memorial Day be observed, and it appears that Memorial Days will forever be necessary. Peace is not in sight. I still don't know how to answer the question. What do you say to a Gold Star parent or spouse?
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author, and long-time VVAW member.