Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the secession war; and it is best they should not. The real war will never get in the books. -Walt Whitman

As I approach the gates of heaven;

St. Peter I will tell;

One more soldier reporting sir;

I've served my time in hell.
-Mark Anthony Gresswell

Memorial Day is when the living pay homage to the dead, at least those died in war while in uniform. But what is true of funerals is equally apt for this holiday: it is all window dressing for the living and does nothing for the dead. The act of paying respects to those men and women who died while in battle is by necessity an emotion laden ritual that ignores a lot of reality that is as unpleasant as it is real. As with any notable holiday, there must be a compelling narrative. And from what I can gather, the narrative is as much fiction, historical amnesia, and selective memory as an accurate account of the heroics of the deceased soldiers who took the fall for their country. The American narrative can be summed up thusly: We are a freedom loving people and the cost of preserving freedom can be high. Many men have given up their lives so we can enjoy the liberties we have. It is to these gallant warriors that we pay tribute without whose ultimate sacrifice we would not be living the life we enjoy today. Thus, we see a causal connection between combat and liberty: the latter would not exist without the former. In other words, we can freely move about and criticize our government today because an 18 year old kid was murdered in 1942 when a Japanese madman sliced his head off during the Bataan Death March. As narrative goes, it can be very powerful. We ascribe the highest motives to our own soldiers and assign the worst motives to our enemies. To question the premise is to impugn the moral fabric of America and call into question one’s own patriotism in the eyes of one’s fellow citizens. This state of affairs is truly unfortunate for it blinds us to the reality of war and cloaks an historical inevitability, war, around a noble purpose and simplistic patriotic symbolism that serves no function other than creating a false sense of moral superiority where it does not belong. I do not mean to impugn the suffering or sacrifice of any soldier but what I believe is a grotesque farce is the attempted link between the death of any soldier and the morality of the government that sent him to do battle. More often than not, battlefield deaths are due more to the stupidity and incompetence of the government than they are to the actions of one’s enemy who is supposedly fighting to destroy American liberty. I spent last night skimming through three books by Paul Fussell, the noted English professor and WWII infantryman: The Great War and Modern Memory, The Boys’ Crusade, and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. I had read all three two times over during the past ten years but always read over selected passages at least twice a year. Fussell highlights the tragic absurdity of war and every government’s attempt to assure that the rhetoric at home does not interfere with the reality of the battlefield as the two are almost always diametrically opposed. In fact, governments are as much complicit in the deaths of their own soldiers as are the enemies they are fighting. Fussell has no ideological ax to grind. His books do not fit into any ideological spectrum. One story stands out: an American general is killed during WWII along with hundred of his soldiers. It is reported that he died under enemy fire in a gallant effort to fight the mighty German army. The truth? He was killed by his own troops who mistakenly dropped bombs on him and his men when they failed to take into account the heavy winds they were dropping bombs into. During the first year of the Pacific war, American casualties were as likely to come from friendly fire as Japanese soldiers. I was dumbfounded at the criminal negligence of the American government as they sent countless young men to die senseless deaths in campaigns that they had to have known would fail. War brings home the old adage that history can be defined as one damn lie after another. Three thousand Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Did they sacrifice their lives for democracy or did they die because the their government was too stupid to not take action to fortify the base against a foreseeable attack? And what about the GI’s sent to fight the Kaiser in WWI. How was American democracy affected there? It may have been very charming to send our young doughboys to Europe under the banner of making the world safe for democracy while singing this George M. Cohan melody:

I am sure this song provided warm comfort as many a twenty year old infantrymen sat freezing to death in a foxhole in France while watching his fellow men bleed to death in an orgy of blood and flesh. But no worry. You may be dying a horrible death for reasons that you now realize are a pack of lies but at least the folks back home will feel good remembering you as one who died so they could live the good life. And if you are not going to die, fear not. Your children will be back in twenty years when the French government for whom you are fighting screws everything up (again).
So this Memorial Day, folks, do the right thing: say a prayer for the all of our soldiers who died in battle. Theirs was a death that was most likely unnecessary. They are honorable men and women for having given service to their country. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of confusing the heroism of the individual soldier with the pretension that there was a noble purpose for which he was fighting. One has nothing to do with the other.


  1. Is there needless death in war? Of course. But much of what went on in WWII was good men and women at all levels trying to do the best that they could with the knowledge that they had at the time. It is so easy to criticize when you have better, although often selective, information 65 years later. Would you prefer that we be speaking Japanese or German?

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