Memorial Day, again

Well, it’s Memorial Day again, and I have no doubt Facebook is awash in noble, patriotic memes.

I hold in my mind American military personnel who have died in the service of this country, following orders from civilian leaders. I also hold in mind the tragic waste of some of those lives.

And now for the cranky rest of my post:

Memorial Day took off shortly after the Civil War as people memorialized dead soldiers of both sides. (It had, like, 25 different starts hither, thither, and yon.) So, we get that whole “reconciliation” thing (in which northern and southern white folks “reconciled” while working together to suppress Black people as Reconstruction is derailed and Jim Crow established).

Then we get World War I, which we didn’t enter until the last year. (/r/AskHistorians has something to say about that.) Huge numbers of dead, world-changing event, lots of sentiment. But were we really “defending” our country? Some say “yes”, actually, but would Germany and Japan actually have invaded? Even through Mexico? Maybe. Invading somebody’s home territory is a bit harder than usual (witness our experience in Somalia). Those would have been some long supply lines, too, and submarines are effective at interrupting those. (And we would be memorializing those sailors who died doing that.)

Anyway, we were very definitely defending our trade. Money flows everywhere, though, like water. We’d have traded with anybody (as we do today).

Similarly in World War II, we were strangling Japan with an oil embargo long before Pearl Harbor to prevent them from threatening territories already held by us and other Western European powers. Look up American expansion in the Pacific.

In WWII, were we defending our shores from invasion by the Axis powers? Again, doubtful, in my opinion. Were we propping up the great democracies of Western Europe (as they betrayed and shipped their neighbors off to concentration camps) and keeping the light of the world from going out? Well… maybe. Germany was never going to win against Britain and Russia, but they might have been able to conquer a lot of Europe and… then what? Slaughtered a bunch of civilians we didn’t care enough about (we’d turned back a boatload of them in 1939 and the news was never front-page, both literally and in its sense of importance)? We’d have traded with them. Our trade definitely would have been disrupted, though. More on this later.

Speaking of our Pacific expansion, we are also remembering those soldiers who slaughtered the Moros in the Philippines. «Five-thousand U.S. troops died in the war, along with around 200k Filipinos.» (

(Also there’s this: «After the “Splendid Little War,” in which fewer Americans died from combat than from eating spoiled canned meat, the U.S. made Cuba a protectorate.», which reminds me: are we also memorializing those who died of disease, bad food and accidents? Yes, right?)

The domino theory led us to war in Vietnam (because Communism!) and, boy, did we spend American lives there. And murdered and raped some civilians, but then… I’m guessing most of those perpetrators actually lived, so we’re not memorializing them. Although I’m sure of them did die later, so…? One might say that, by preventing the dominance by communist regimes of southeast Asia, we prevented said regimes from acquiring the resources of southeast Asia because geopolitics and defending our homeland. Note that the biggest trading partner of most of southeast Asia is… China.

In the meantime, our passionate and principled defense of democracy did actually lead us to defend the anti-communist revolts in Hungary in 1956 (not) and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (not). Our defense of the weak and innocent led to us to step in in Rwanda in 1994 (not) and Srebrenica in 1995 (not). We did intervene in Kosovo in 1999 because “never again” and also refugees might have destabilized Europe and interfered with our trade. Plus they were white enough and not backed by a big scary nuclear armed nation. As opposed to, say, Syria in 2012, which we just could not work up the interest in.

Back to WWII. Was that our one shining Just War? Was the threat to European democracy, our trade, and the innocent civilians there enough for us to sacrifice a quarter of a million folks? We didn’t really care about the Jews and, even today, some chunk of us deny or are doubtful that the Holocaust even happened or was really that bad. And we don’t seem to care about civilians anywhere else, either. (We do care a little more when they look like us, but just a little. And by “us”, I mean, of course, the dominant demographic in this country.) Did we go to war because of outrage? Because our manifest destiny was being interfered with? Rage over the assault on Pearl Harbor? Because otherwise, I don’t think it was inevitable. We weren’t in the mood before that.

Is rage why we fought a ten-year, $6 trillion war in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11? What were we defending? Against what attack? How were we going to be effective? Wasn’t that kind of a lot to put a bullet in one guy’s head?

Today, I get the feeling that the same folks criticizing coastal liberals, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), and mask-wearing would actually be kind of happy (or righteous) to see planes flying into New York City skyscrapers. As were some evangelical Christianists on that exact day.

I know I sound a bit like an isolationist (maybe?), so let me say that I’m definitely not. I do believe in the benefits of democracy and (regulated) capitalism, and I’m actually kind of a neocon in that regard. But the same folks waving the flag on Facebook this weekend are the ones who also say “let’s take care of homeless vets before spending money on welfare.” Our military hasn’t really been defending this country since the War of 1812. We’ve been projecting power, and frequently not for noble reasons. And I can’t quite get on board with that. As Christians, we are called to share, not dominate. (I believe the same is true for those of us who are Jewish or Islamic. I’ll make a semi-wild guess that it’s true for those of us with Confucian backgrounds. I know nothing about Hinduism as a higher religion so I can’t speak to that, but I’m willing to believe something those lines (and not the lines of the current BJP in India).)

Anyway… the individuals who have sacrificed their lives in the service of this country represent a disciplined sub…something to, and trust in the will of, our civilian leadership, and I respect that. I believe that sacrifice comes with a certain sense of tragedy at the purpose and circumstance of some of those sacrifices, and I bear that in mind, too.

I don’t respect the words or behavior of any of the citizens of this nation which are simply furthering mindless aggression, and I believe we should be careful how we use our military.

Updates (one John, two opinions):

The war actually became popular with the institution of the draft and the passage of Lend-Lease:

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