Pondering war, patriotism and fallen soldiers

Carla Axtman

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Memorial Day, or more specifically, the way we are often told how to properly respect what this day is about. I believe deeply in honoring those men & women who sacrificed their lives in service to our nation. I think it's our duty as Americans to ensure that their families are cared for. It's also our duty to ensure that those who do come home after serving are given generous benefits, including a lifetime of top shelf health care and education benefits.

I also believe, however, that Memorial Day ought to be a time to reflect on the times our leaders have inappropriately engaged our military--and needlessly caused so many of our soldiers to die. I know that many of us have a lot of trouble with the idea that American soldiers have died in vain. But when it comes to what's happened in Iraq, I don't see how it's not the case. We were shamefully lied to by those who swore to protect and defend the Constitution.

Many of the men & women who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan have done so with honor. They did their duty (and some well beyond) to help rebuild. They did so in extremely tough conditions that a lot of us civilian folk (myself included) would find intolerable.

But this service, in my view, didn't "protect our freedoms". In fact, these conflicts and 9-11 have been used as an excuse to greatly curtail our freedoms. Trying to get on an airplane nowadays is an exercise is ridiculousness: a nonsensically invasive series of procedures. Our Congress has passed laws, including the Patriot Act, specifically designed to make us less free.

There are also some very troubling incidents that individual members of the military have engaged in. From torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison to more recently a series of high profile incidents of misconduct in Afghanistan by members of the military, it's hard to not wonder if there's a larger, systemic problem with the culture of the armed services.

It's a lot to ponder.

No doubt there will be those who will question the patriotism of people, like myself, who raise such questions on a day set aside for honoring the fallen. But consider that if we are to truly honor their sacrifice--we must boldly confront these issues head on. Sweeping them under the rug and hiding from them only guarantee that they'll continue. This is an unacceptable thing for a nation whose very foundation is built on the blood of those died to bring us our freedoms in the first place.

I can't think of a day, with the possible exception of Veteran's Day, where we turn our national focus more toward the military. They deserve our scrutiny as well as our gratitude.

  • (Show?)

    Growing up in a military household (dad retired full Colonel), some things were simple facts of life: service, weapons, orders, duty. I got #252 in The Last Draft, and did not go to Vietnam. My brother got 72 and enlisted in the Navy. We had some very heated "discussions" with Dad, and it wasn't until after the war that he, too, came to understand that he, a military man, had been lied to and the war was a tragedy. I, too, contemplate war, our military, our military might and its' deployment, and the weight of the lies told to all of us, but especially those who have no choice in the matter, but as military, go to war because they're told to. The fear that is deliberately instilled has both consequences for us as a people, and it makes a lot of money for some. I cannot contemplate war without also digesting the obscene amounts of money to be made, at the expense of so many needs. I want to trust, again, but it's hard.

  • (Show?)

    Carla-You know I am a State Wide Veteran Advocate here in Oregon and I agree with you in the first part of the article but until someone had walked in the shoes of a Combat Veteran with 2 to 3 tours underneath there belt-What i have paraphrased it as--By going to war you've picked fruit from the tree of knowledge. You can't put it back on the tree. You have to learn how to live with the results of what you've experienced. There are some situations that a Soldier must deal with like MST, Shoot a weapon and Ect...War is not pretty and yes i know we have signed up for it-but the ramifications of War lingers in the life of Soldiers forever and as you have the freedom of writing or voicing your opinion -it is because Soldiers have Lost there Yesterdays so people could have there Tomorrows!!!

    • (Show?)

      ‚ÄéTena: "...walking in the shoes...." should never, EVER, be an excuse for the kind of behavior we've seen from some of those individuals in the military who've engaged in the terrible behavior that's been reported. As Americans, it should be something we confront and fix. It hurts all of us.

      The war in Iraq has never been about protecting our freedoms. Perhaps there was an argument at one time for that for Afghanistan--but we're well past that now. The misuse of our military in this way is highly offensive to me. And it's been used to erode our freedoms.

      I think we have to be honest with ourselves about this. And it isn't easy. The rhetoric about how the military "protects are freedoms" has been used a lot to cow us on these issues. That's can't happen anymore.

      • (Show?)

        Memorial Day is not the time to bring up accusations about war atrocities or torture. There is a time and place and context for having that discussion and investigation if need be. Veterans should not be tarred with what a few unhinged individuals do. And a national ritual of honoring the fallen and the wounded is not the time or context for having the debates you want to have. It is a debate you will lose if you want to tell every soldier and their family member, who went to Iraq or Vietnam, that their sacrifice was a waste. These are the kind of self-righteous judgments that cause people on the left to lose the national argument on war and peace, and to be marginalized as elitist and unpatriotic.

        There is a way and a time to make the point in a way that it can be heard and be effective. As long as there are wars there will be atrocities, civilian deaths, and needless wanton death. When my father came back from WWII on a hospital ship barely age 20, he promised himself that having seen the worst brutality that humans can inflict on one another, having participated in that brutality, he was going to spend a lifetime learning kindness. And it took him a lifetime. Just making judgments about how evil war is, and what it does to people on both sides, won't change a thing. Especially when those judgments are made by people who have not been in combat, it rings hollow and can be misunderstood and twisted to be anti-American. That is the mistake the left makes again and again, and why they never succeed in changing minds or policies.

        President Obama's statements today at the Vietnam memorial, and his Op-Ed in the military publications about the judgments made against the military and those who served in the military during Vietnam were misplaced, destructive, and wrong. It was a civilian leadership who made the decisions to unleash massive military force, and to send young men and women into that maelstrom of violence. And the judgments and actions of the left did nothing except bring resentment and division for more than four decades, in addition to discrediting real criticism and debate about our foreign policy and the use of military force.

        • (Show?)

          Please read again what I wrote in this post. I went out of my way to NOT tar all in the military with the actions of some.

          That said, I believe Memorial Day is very good day to discuss these issues. It's a day when our nation focuses on the military and the fallen. We honor their service and their sacrifice by working to ensure that the damaging incidents that in fact DO tar all Americans in the minds of many no longer happen.

          • (Show?)

            Carla, you might feel very righteous about your desire to debate these issues. But how it is received is going to determine whether you are effective in shaping the debate. Feeling righteous is a pretty good indicator that your content will probably not be received well.

            Downstream Jennifer Sargent says it well. On Memorial Day it' s like going to a funeral and bringing an argument about who's to blame. I'm of the Vietnam era, opposed the war, escaped the draft by virtue of a lottery number. The way and the context our Vietnam policy was debated by those opposed, helped the war to continue more than it needed to. It also helped the GOP falsely claim the mantle of the "national security" party and elect people like GWB when they use patriotism as a wedge issue. (The GOP used to be the party of "isolationism." )

            It's why leftists are so ineffective and chronic losers on national security issues. When leftists continue to debate national security policy from their personal righteousness they end up marginalizing themselves and their point of view to most Americans. Until Vietnam, Dems had the legacy of FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK, of being a party that would keep America safe. After that we became the party of "left wing pacifists and defeatists" who use Marxist language to rail against American "imperialism."

            Leftists seem to forget that it was American military might that did save the world from the terrible evils of Fascism and Communism, and the Dem. Party played a large role in that effort. Using Marxist language, as some do (not saying you do), to denigrate the American military and define it as an instrument of corporate imperialism is an affront to most Americans and should be. It convinces no one. And it disempowers common sense thinking about what our real national security policy should be and the appropriate uses of military power.

            American voters ask Democrats, "are you prepared to do what is necessary to defend our vital interests with a strong military?" If you can't answer that question in the unequivocal affirmative, then you will simply lose elections and lose a voice in the decisions.

            • (Show?)

              The question used to be "are you prepared to do what is necessary to defend our freedom?. Now it's "our interests". That is the obscenity here.

            • (Show?)

              Bill, I see your point. See my main comment below. But I also have to say that this cuts the other way too -- that the use of Memorial Day to promote jingoism and militaristic aggressive nationalism makes the day hard for me for reasons other than the reasons it should be hard. On balance I see Carla's post as a corrective to those more culturally dominant tendencies.

        • (Show?)

          If not now...when.....? when are we going to be real?

  • (Show?)

    Certainly the term "protecting our freedoms" resonates but, it's use as a yardstick for intervention is problematic (not only in its stated application in Iraq and Afghanistan -- where it seemed a cynical manipulation) but in reconciling the statement's aim with even more contemporary US military involvement in Egypt, Libya, and, perhaps, Syria.

  • (Show?)

    We The People send men and women into harm's way. The men and women we elect to represent us, make that decision, and we elect the President. And We are, gradually, learning how our military can, and has been, misused to further un-American ends. Memorial Day is a good and proper day to consider how We send our kids to war, and how our elected officials can abuse their authority. If we can, through discussion, protest and introspection, prevent the next unjustified war, we will have acted nobly, and in the highest traditions of patriotism.

  • (Show?)

    A Dutch friend of mine posted a Facebook status update today disparaging Memorial Day as "USA hail the soldier day."

    This is what I wrote in response. I think it applies here, too:

    I share your frustration with war and I wish we could stop it. For me and lots of other people here, Memorial Day is not about glorifying war. It's about sympathizing with the men and women who didn't start the wars but were sent, voluntarily or not, into a war zone to do the work that the Bushes and other powerful families can't be bothered with, and even profit from. People who enlist in the military are often poor and/or minority. My dad was drafted to fight in Vietnam at a young age, and he was dirt poor. He thought Army food was great because he'd never had enough food before. He had to do things he never wanted to talk about later, and he was sure he would die there. I think it broke him, in some ways. I have met a lot of his buddies from the war, and they are the ones I think about and honor on Memorial Day. They are good people who fought at age 18 or 19 because they didn't have a choice. Unfortunately, for some people Memorial Day is just a day off from school or work. But for a lot of people, it's a chance to think about the human costs of war, which sadly get ignored for the rest of the year. Your frustration is understandable, but instead of directing it at soldiers, the people who really deserve it are the powerful families and politicians who start wars but keep their own children safely at home or in an expensive college, or those who profit from war.

    Just my two cents on a difficult day and a difficult topic.

    • (Show?)

      I'm going to take it a step further and say I agree with some of the comments above. Memorial Day is not the day to discuss the politics of war, any more than a funeral would be an appropriate place for it.

      My dad came home from Vietnam in one piece, or so it seemed. About 15 years after he returned, he started experiencing a slow decline in his health that was later determined to be related to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. It's why we left Maine when I was 12, because he worked outside on power lines and had developed circulation problems that made his hands turn blue and stop functioning in the cold. Don't even get me started on the emotional toll that the war took on him and other veterans. And their families, including ours.

      He suffered for the last 15 years of his life from Agent Orange-related illnesses before dying of cancer at age 54. The VA acknowledged Agent Orange's role in his cancer, which is a victory for veterans who fought for the recognition and treatment they deserved, but it doesn't restore life. For me, Veterans Day and Memorial Day are reminders that my dad was in many ways broken by the war and is not here to enjoy his retirement or to meet his granddaughter.

      Many of us are in a fog today, or at cemeteries, or somehow remembering good people who served, and mixing them up with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib doesn't seem right. I can wrap my mind around these issues any other day of the year, but not today.

  • (Show?)

    As a Repentant ex member of Murder Inc., Southeast Asia Division, I'll damn well talk about the lies that brought about the deaths of so many of my brothers and sisters in arms on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, 4th of July and any other day that uber patriotic propaganda tries to rally us around the flag for God and country.

    Uncomfortable as it may be, they mostly did die in vain.

    "If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied." - Rudyard Kipling, 1918

  • (Show?)

    I want a Memorial Day for all foreigners killed by the US military.

  • (Show?)

    On my bookshelf there is a commerative plate for bond sales that my great grandfather did for World War One. Today, I know that the Little Orphan Annie cartoon strip's Daddy Warbucks was a reference to a Mr. Walburg who was along with his brother part of many things including the establishment of the Federal Reserve.


    Please folks, get informed. Read the latest book by Jim Mars which I believe is called The Trillion Dollar Conspiracy. Of course, helicopter Ben Bernanke gave foreign banks fifteen trillion but whats looting a country among friends?

    Wake up folks. Check out the latest executive orders that President Obama has signed.

    And may God help us.

  • (Show?)

    On Memorial Day I went to remembrance event at Peace Memorial Park (near Steel Bridge) held by Veterans for Peace. I find VFP helps me center my thinking about the issues involved. To me Memorial Day ought to be about honoring courage and sacrifice and about mourning. VFP help me keep in view the courage it takes to keep going after the traumas of war, the courage it takes to stand up for peace as an ex-military person, the healing that brings at least partly to some, the mourning for the losses and sufferings of their comrades and also the mourning for victims of our wars of choice.

    According to Clauswitz, war is the extension of politics by other means. If that's right, soldiers and their actions are inherently politicized by those who extend their politics through war. We may try to mute that, but we can't eliminate it.

    I refuse to dishonor my VFP friends by saying that to think about the questions they raise somehow dishonors the sacrifices of other veterans. It doesn't.

connect with blueoregon