Memorial Day 2014
It's Memorial Day again and we are remembering men and women who died in American wars.
It is clearly fitting to remember them, but it is curious that there are many other heroic Americans who do not have their day of remembrance. Think of the many Americans – the majority African Americans – who died in the struggle for racial equality. Martin Luther King got his day but there are no days for Malcolm X. or Medgar Evers and the many less well known victims of racial violence.
While we are remembering heroic lives, why are we not talking about the parents who for many years worked two or even three jobs to provide a better life for their children, essentially giving up their own. Why do we not think of grandparents, barely finished raising their children, only to start all over raising their grandchildren because their children were unable or unwilling to do so.
When are we remembering the men and women who faithfully went off to work one day, as they had gotten so many days before, and died in a workplace accident?
Heroism takes many forms. Why only remember heroes killed in wars?
What makes Memorial Day different is the nationalist mythology that is regularly rehearsed on that day. Inevitably speakers will say that the soldiers who died were all heroes. They died, the speakers will add, to preserve American freedoms.
Let's look at the reality of that.
The period between World War I and World War II, approximately 25 years, was the longest period the United States was at peace. The average time between wars in our history was more like 10 years. The war that claimed most casualties by far was the Civil War in which, according to different estimates, between 600,000 and 750,000 soldiers died. That war clearly contributed to the agonizingly slow liberation of slaves. It is not clear that it preserved anything for whites, or Hispanics, or Native Americans, or various other groups.
The largest number of our wars were fought against Native Americans. The free institutions we boast of owed a great deal to the political practices of some of the Native American tribes. Yet, ironically, these wars clearly did not contribute to their freedom. It cleared space for the rest of us to live however we chose to live.
The soldiers who died in World War II may have protected us against authoritarian regimes. But that is by no means self-evident. It would be difficult to argue that. It is definitely not true of any of the wars we fought since then. The Asian wars were clearly defeats but our institutions remain the same. It is not obvious how the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan preserved American institutions.
The attacks of 9/11 have clearly resulted in restrictions of American freedoms but those were not imposed by Osama bin Laden or by Al Qaeda, but were made in Washington with the approval of the majority of American citizens. To the extent that our institutions are less free than they once were – and that is a plausible claim – we deprived ourselves of those freedoms.
The transition from a popular democracy to an oligarchy of the very rich was not imposed on us by any foreign nation. The very rich and those they bought managed to do that all by themselves.
All wars, whether domestic or foreign, where only peripherally related to the maintenance of American freedoms. The foreign wars were all efforts to maintain our imperial power, to become, to be and to remain the most powerful nation on earth. We are still involved in that project. Congress just appropriated more than $600 billion for the military.
Memorial Day is part of the propaganda that is used to justify this brute striving for power. It tells us that we are not trying to dominate the globe. We are just trying to preserve our freedom.
But that is a blatant lie. It dishonors the men and women who died in all of foreign wars. The least we can do is not to turn they are deaths into a another propaganda tool.