Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Salute to Saluting

I am, unabashedly and vocally, a pacifist in as broad a terms as I can imagine that word being applied. I would like to set that aside for the purposes of this thought, however, and assume for the sake of argument a stance that I believe that it is possible for a war to be justified morally, legally, or even pragmatically. It is Memorial Day, a holiday which in true American fashion was begun to honor the armed services but for all intents and purposes now only honors American decadence in all its wasteful, gluttonous, self-indulgent glory. Nevertheless, a variety of forces still conspire to provide the American public with a nagging reminder that they should be mindful of the military. Beer commercials, talk show hosts, and billboards all remind us to save a moment between our third and fourth helping of potato salad for gratitude for those courageous members of the military who have served and continue to serve protecting our American freedoms.

That is not, I suppose, such an offensive notion in itself. My grandfather served in World War II with distinction, earning a purple heart, and I was raised to feel a certain sense of awe at the thought of that greatest generation. I grasp that in the terms of prevailing moral sentiment that Hitler was a bad man who the world had an ethical imperative to stop. I understand that at Pearl Harbor the sovereign borders of the United States were violated by the army of a foreign state. I can understand the reverence paid to the veterans of World War II.

But I struggle with the idea that the very fact of military service somehow requires deference. There is a popular idea that stretches across the political spectrum that it is somehow beyond debate that men and women who have volunteered for service in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq deserve praise. Why is that? I am not sure that violence ever deserves praise, but when it is violence which neither protects American liberty nor rights an egregious wrong it seems insufficient to me to appeal to a vague sense of obligation and expect everyone to genuflect before veterans of unjust wars.

I am reading through Ron Paul’s Liberty Defined right now, and he points out that the wars the United States is currently engaged in do not stand up to any reasonable criteria of justification. They are not legal, moral, or pragmatic. He explains:

We have spent a couple trillion dollars, and most importantly, sacrificed a lot more Americans than died on 9/11. Nearly 6,000 have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of physical and mental casualties have been sustained, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani citizens, only to see the Taliban and al Qaeda moving into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia…Every time there’s a military confrontation, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen, even Somalia, “victory” is reported since so many “insurgents” were killed, and when examined closely there is an admission that many civilian casualties resulted as well, referred to as collateral damage. If it was always reported that we killed “freedom fighters” defending their homeland, which is closer to the truth, the American people would be outraged.

Even if I do not share the view, I can understand the mindset which believes that many traits of the soldier are noble. Apparent courage and self-sacrifice are easily lauded, but I would suggest that, regardless of your positions on war in general, there is nothing laudable about having the courage to attack an enemy who has not attacked you or to sacrifice yourself for an unjust cause. Paul writes elsewhere,

The endless praise offered to those who serve in the military--“thank you for your service” in defending the empire--is a required politically correct salutation to our “universal” soldiers. No, they never say thank you for “defending the empire”; it’s much more decent--it’s thank you for defending our freedoms, our Constitution, and for fighting “them” over there so we don’t’ have to fight them here at home. Though the wars we fight are now unconstitutional, the military is endlessly praised for defending our liberties and Constitution.

I am not proposing any kind of antagonism towards America’s armed forces. The idea of more Vietnam era behavior where returning soldiers are reviled, shamed, and abused by the public is really no less distasteful than the kind of intolerant violence that ought to be opposed overseas. I am only hoping that people will be critical of what seems to be a largely uncritical attitude of quasi-religious reverence toward servicemen and women. What is it that deserves praise? What warrants our respect? At the very least, I would hope that it is not the mere willingness to enlist whatever the aim, whatever the orders, whatever the cost (measured in human lives rather than American citizens). There is no virtue in that.

1 comment:

  1. I am very much in agreement with this, and I wish I knew a way to bring these issues into a more public forum. I simply don't know how in a way that would be productive.