Memorial Day: In memory; In hope?

USMC-10856It’s Memorial Day again, and as good a time as any to reflect on the lives of so many people who died or were seriously disabled, mentally and physically, trying to make the world a better place. And each has my great respect and thanks for acting so selflessly.

At the same time, I’d like to tell anyone ready to follow in those footsteps: Please, don’t do it. At least not unless you are personally sure that it is absolutely necessary: that it will indeed make the world a better place and there is no other way. Otherwise, I, for one, would rather have you with us, working to make the world a better place in so many smaller but perhaps more effective ways, day by day by day.

A friend recently wrote a moving post after the dedication of a memorial to local residents killed in service. He remembered how one young man made a difference in and a lasting impression on his neighborhood, until he went to Vietnam. I didn’t know Tommy, and I know nothing of what he did in Vietnam or how he died. Maybe he died saving fellow marines. Maybe during his time there he helped protect Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire. I would hate to think pressures most of us will never know drove him to take part in atrocities such as the My Lai massacre. But war, and especially war motivated by ideology in a foreign land where the distinction between the “bad guys” and the “good guys” is murky at best, does nasty things to people in many ways. Whatever Tommy did in Vietnam, I think the world would be a better place if he and the 58,000+ other Americans who died there had stayed home.

Let me repeat that anyone who puts their life on the line trying to protect others has my utmost respect. I cannot say the same, however, about US governments going back to the 60s that have urged or demanded these sacrifices far from home and are responsible for the deaths of many more local people. Americans sadly have every reason not to trust their government to take military action only when absolutely necessary for national defense or the common good, and only to the extent necessary. The rise of multinationals, and the politics of oil and arms, the world’s two leading moneymakers, have more or less ensured that US military action will involve vested interests and a balance sheet.

Such sentiments might trigger knee-jerk accusations of liberal bias, but the person who first warned Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” was no liberal peacenik. President Dwight D. Eisenhower singled out that concern for his farewell speech as he left office in 1961. Go ahead and read what he said or read his lips.

I seriously question whether the Democrats or Republicans will be able to set up a government once again worthy of trust — a government that protects the true, long-term interests of Americans but also considers the true, long-term interests of the rest of world; and that does not risk lives except as an absolute last resort for the noblest of reasons. Members of both parties could do it together, but only if they stop the pervasive deception, hypocrisy and lack of transparency that have become hallmarks of politics.

Maybe we should all make a Memorial Day’s resolution to tell politicians to do that, quickly, while we count time and look for compassionate, capable people to replace any of them who won’t or can’t do the right thing. People who can regain the goodwill and respect that the United States built on the ideals and sacrifices remembered today, but then squandered strong-arming private profits built on oppression and exploitation. Then maybe days will come when we remember all the brave, selfless heroes who gave their lives protecting others before we truly honored their sacrifice by finding a better way.

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