Monday, May 28, 2012

Thoughts on Memorial Day 2012


Today is Memorial Day in the United States. I am not quite sure what the appropriate wish is for this day. It's hardly a happy occasion, but is it a day to remember how great are the sacrifices required by war and how considered our decisions must be before we engage in it.

I am always troubled by the attempt of some to make regard for our military a left-right issue. I've never understood this and have a hell of time getting my head around the sentiment. Some on the right seem to think that everyone on the left is naturally presupposed to cowardice and would refuse to defend the country even if the cause was clearly just. Some on the left seem to think that everyone on the right enjoys a good war every now and again just for the hell of it. Foolishness abounds on both sides.

Although I have never had to put myself in harms way for my country, I believe that most who have are likely the greatest ambassadors for peace having seen what it is really like and knowing that there should always be very good reasons for making war.

Over the past few months I've read various accounts of U.S. involvement in wars. Most recently I read John Toland's The Last 100 Days about the end of the WWII. I read Steinbeck's Once There Was A War and Stephen Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers, both also about WWII. I reread Michael Herr's Dispatches and We Were Soldiers Once and Young by Lt. General Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway about the war in Vietnam. I even read a book called On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an account of the psychological ravages of having to kill in combat, a book actually used in military training.

I have always had an interest in military matters, though this hardly makes me any kind of expert. I have discovered, though, that the theme occurring most often in nearly everything I have heard or read about soldiers in war is that their primary concern is survival but perhaps even primarily providing assistance to their comrades, to do all they can to ensure as many survive as possible. Killing is hard. Doing what has to be done to protect one's fellows is most frequently the goal, though it obviously involves killing. I take comfort in this idea if it is true that under duress our minds are most strongly focused on the safety of those with whom we stand.

I understand that war and the decisions to go to war are among the most politically charged of any. I understand why these decision are sometimes couched in terms of left and right, but that is not the soldiers concern. When it comes to them, our political decision-makers put them in harms way. Soldiers do what they are asked to do if they serve well and it is for this reason they are honoured.

Despite the fact that some soldiers in every war do not comport themselves honourably, I suspect that most do. Whatever the rights and wrongs of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think the wrongs are most prominent, I am glad that there has been little evidence of vilifying soldiers who have served, little name-calling or other thoughtless acts as we have seen in the past.

The politicians make the decision. We civilians have a right to argue with them and vote against them, but the soldiers who carry out the orders do what they are asked to do. It would be a better world if we didn't need them at all, but we do.

We cannot know in advance how just the next war will be, should it come. Let's agree that it is good some are prepared to serve.

So, on this Memorial Day, whatever else may be true, I hope as many men and women in uniform as possible are successful in keeping themselves and their friends safe. And let us also think of the ones for whom that was not possible. It shouldn't be difficult to consider this a strongly bipartisan perspective.

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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