Monday, May 25, 2015

American Amnesia- Thoughts on Memorial Day

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the US. For those who don't know, it's a national holiday in America where US soldiers who have died while in uniform are honored and remembered. While that might sound like a very solemn occasion, and yes there are ceremonies and parades remembering fallen soldiers across the country, the truth is most Americans spend the day picnicking, barbecuing, and drinking.  Not surprisingly there is also a considerable spike in arrests related to drunk driving.


Like all US national holidays, Memorial Day is not something that arouses any deep seated feelings of patriotic loyalty in me. I grew up in Thailand and while our family celebrated certain US holidays from time to time, I can't say they were as exciting to me as Christmas or Thai New Year. Getting older, traveling to new corners of the globe, all while delving into the darker chapters of US Foreign Policy and History at college didn't exactly make the Star Spangled Banner a favorite tune of mine either. 


That said, I don't hate the US. It's a very great country. It's accomplished quite a lot and provides a great deal of philanthropy across the world...for better or worse. As far as the US military goes, I'm wary and sympathetic. I disapprove of the power of the military industrial complex and the fact that US spends more money on its armed forces than the next twelve countries under us combined at the expense of important social services. 


On the other hand, the US military is often at the tip of the spear when it comes to responding to humanitarian disasters and catastrophes around the world. I know people in the US army. Some of my friends were military brats. The soldiers I know on an individual level are great people; ideal driven, highly motivated and often very humble. 


Overall, it's good that the US has a holiday to remember its fallen soldiers. All countries around the world commemorate those troops who've died in combat. No one should expect the US to be any different. 


However, when I see pictures circulating social media showing the funerals of US soldiers, when I catch commercials on the TV from a local news station ending with 'We'll never forget', and yes the abundance of American flags, I can't help but feel discomforted. Because we do forget...and no I'm talking about forgetting that US soldiers died. Nor am I referring to the supposed sanctity of the day being tainted by Americans deciding to clog their arteries with saturated fats.


I'm talking about how Americans' remembrance of their soldiers and the wars they've fought in is often tainted by a selective amnesia. We remember that soldiers have died fighting in wars. Yet we deliberately neglect thinking of the wider context of these conflicts.

 The false narratives that have driven us to unnecessary conflicts, PTSD and physical disability, the deaths of non-American civilians in wars across the globe, often unintentional, the chaotic and bloody mess we have left behind in countries we had spent trillions of dollars to rebuild or develop; these are all aspects of wars past and present that we choose not to include in remembering US soldiers who died. 


Why? Well, I suspect a number of people would feel that it makes the deaths of the soldiers, particularly those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, in vain. Somehow, criticizing the nature of the justness or necessity of the wars they died in is an attack on them as people and lessens their own lives.


I don't view it that way. A soldier is a soldier. They follow orders. They obey their superiors. While they may harbor doubts about why they're trying to hold onto a remote outpost in the Afghan mountains (Restrepo), they will continue to hold it. Soldiers, regardless of nationality, do not decide where they are sent. They don't choose which field to fight in or which cause is just.  


Leaders do that. In the States it's leaders we elect, leaders we choose to go along with. Ergo, the buck stops with the ordinary American.


And this is the true reason we dislike talking about the unjust and tragic nature of some of our wars on days like yesterday. Because we don't want to indict ourselves. We don't like to acknowledge that we are the reason these men and women have gone off and killed others before being killed themselves all for causes we told them were worth their weight in life. 


I can think of no clearer example of this than Iraq. In 2014, 50 percent of Americans believed that decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the wrong choice. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Nor should it be a surprise that in March of 2003, when the invasion was underway, 72 percent of Americans believed that using military force in Iraq was the correct decision.  


Sure, George W. Bush sold the American people a yarn about Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction but we bought it. 


The talking heads at Fox and CNN prattled on about shadowy ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq's military. We swallowed it up. 


US officials told us the American soldiers we were sending would be greeted as liberators and that a new democratic society would blossom in the desert. And we said 'Of course it will! America can do no wrong!' forgetting that we are an imperfect nation made of imperfect people and that we knew next to nothing of this country who's future was now going to intertwined with our own. 


I lived through that time. I remember it vividly. American news covered Iraqi Freedom like the Super Bowl. The excitement and electricity among the students at the US public school I went to was palpable. We believed in the war. I believed in the war and ultimately we the people of the United States had no damn clue how much harm we were going to inflict on Iraq's people, ourselves and the American soldiers that we claim to love so much. 


Fast forward through 4493 dead American soldiers hundreds of thousands of slain Iraqis, and the country we promised to liberate and make a democracy in our own image is engulfed by political discord, the terror of ISIS and even more sectarian bloodshed between Sunni and Shia.


None of this changes the fact that many US servicemen and women served selflessly and to the best of their ability. None of this changes the courage they showed in extreme hardship.Yet how many of their lives, which we insist must be remembered, could we have saved if the American people had been more hesitant to plunge forward into war?

Will we learn our lesson and honor the American soldiers of tomorrow by promising them that the next time our government tells us that a war is worth waging we will be better informed?  Will we make damn sure that we have thought long and considered the loss of life on all sides before sending them into fire and flame? I can only hope so. I can only hope. 


US Army Spc. Jerral Hancock- Photo by David Jay via NPR

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this, Sean. Well reflected.
    I just completed reading World order by Henry Kissinger. Brilliant analysis although I do not share his secular conclusions. I do recommend it.
    blessings and prayers, Benjamin Hegeman