Yesterday was Memorial Day in my native
When I was a kid, it was hard to think of it as anything but a holiday – the day after the last day of school, the day we hoped and prayed it would be warm enough for the public swimming pool to open, a day for picnics with the family or when Mom would drive out to the greenhouse to buy some flowers to set out. It was a day of parades with brass bands playing stirring patriotic marches and with middle-aged and old men dressing up like soldiers once more to join uniformed National Guardsmen and other troops in carrying the colors to the Veterans Monument at the Courthouse and then out to the cemetery in tearful remembrance of their fallen brothers.
But for us, as kids, it was just the first exciting small-town event to kick off the wonderful, lazy days of small-town summer.
The problem is that this childhood Memorial Day illusion is only that. And since it appears impossible for the
My grandparents’ generation had World War I, my parents’ generation, World War II. My parents’ younger siblings had to face the Korean War. My generation’s war was
Sixty million combatants are estimated to have taken part in the First World War. In the four years that the fighting lasted, 16 million people died and nearly 35 million suffered some form of permanent physical disability. Those figures don’t include the millions who suffered permanent mental or emotional trauma. World War II. Despite the Great War’s have supposedly been the “war to end all wars”, a quarter-century later, we found the world at war again, and this time as many people died (62 million from 55 nations) as combatants that took part in the First War. And there are no accurate figures to calculate the millions upon millions of people injured, disable or mentally traumatized in this second modern instance of wholesale worldwide butchery.
In just the two major conflicts that our current generations have lived through (…or not…), then, approximately 100 million people died. Think about it: That’s more than three times the size of the total population of
One such “minor conflict” was the Korean War. For many years this war was referred to, especially by the
Then there was my generation’s war. Official figures in the Vietnam War place direct American casualties at 58,148 dead and 300,000 wounded. But this doesn’t take into account the thousands upon thousands of conscript soldiers who returned with broken hearts, broken spirits and broken minds to a life of chemical dependencies, chronic depression, severe mental illness, neurological trauma from chemical agents and other conditions that kept them from ever recovering control over their own destinies or caused them to die young from any number of unnatural causes. Just among my immediate circle of acquaintances, I can think of several who died in combat before their 21st birthdays, one who came home and hanged himself in his garage and another who came home in 1970 and to this day remains incapable of facing life without the dulling effects of severe alcohol and drug abuse (to such an extent that the last I knew of him, he no longer was getting out of bed to drink and “get high”…if you can call it that). People can say that he and all the others should have gotten over it, gotten on with their lives. But that’s like saying a person should “get over” child abuse, rape or other forms of severe victimization.
Yet, nothing compares to the ravages of war. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, in dirty wars such as these – wars like Vietnam, like Afghanistan, like Iraq, wars of attrition against a scarcely identifiable enemy, where the lines between friend and foe are patchy and guerrilla fighters work the no man’s land between uniformed combatants and civilian populations – nothing, no amount of gung-ho training, no amount of psychological readiness, no amount of discipline, can prepare these men and women for what they will see, what they will be ordered to do and what they may well do on their own as a result of the in-combat stress and trauma they suffer. Already, well over a million of today’s American soldiers have had to face this.
Nor do the cold figures that measure the effects on our own troops take into account the tidal wave of suffering left in their wake. Our South Vietnamese allies in that other conflict lost 5 times as many troops as the
Beyond tragic and into the realm of horrifying are the 7 million tons of explosives that the United States made use of during that war, or the chemical, biological and bacterial agents that Washington liberally rained down on the Vietnamese people in clear violation of the Geneva Convention that Washington has so often cited in criticizing the inhuman behavior of other nations. This was over 3 times the quantity of explosives used in aerial attacks on all sides during World War II.
And with all of the experience that the
We need to honor these dead by rejecting, rather than embracing and glorifying war. If we re-read the statistics above, it becomes clear that what we should be looking into is not more effective ways of waging war, but rather, the most effective ways possible of avoiding and preventing it. Perhaps this will mean a revolution in diplomacy or witheringly preemptive multinational action. Anything to keep two sides from dignifying their conflict with false partiotic fervor.
War is not noble, no matter how noble the intentions of those who actually fight the wars may be. Wars are not, as most leaders would have us believe, honorable or winnable in any real sense other than in that of achieving the political and economic ends of those in power. War is hell. War is merely the wholesale slaughter of one people by another for reasons that have little or nothing to do with why we are told we must fight them. And as war becomes more “effective” the number of civilian casualties grows relatively greater all the time, threatening to become exponential.
The best way, then, to honor our war dead, is by seeking to ensure that war becomes the most unthinkable of all means to an end. No society that rejects homicide as a heinous crime should find war logical…and much less, glorious.