Memorial Day. The kick-off to summer barbecue season. Beaches open for business. Beer coolers and grills on sale at the local discount store. Hawaiian shirts and flip flops come out of storage. School is almost over for the year, and vacation season is coming up. It’s a great time of year.
As with most of our national holidays, though, we tend to forget the original purpose of Memorial Day. The holiday was established as a national observance in 1868 to honor the memory of the soldiers who died on both sides in the American Civil War. By the time World War I ended in 1918, the holiday had been extended to cover everyone killed in service in the U.S. armed forces.
I come from what you might call a military family. There are no generals or other high-ranking officers in my family, just solid, blue-collar working-class men who answered the call to serve, did their time, and went back to their regular lives when it was over. There was a picture of my maternal grandfather hanging on the wall in my childhood home, standing in formation with his World War I army unit. He was a fiddle player in the Army band. Don’t laugh – it was a pretty cool job that took him out of the coal mines for a few years. I looked at that picture every day as a kid and felt the call to duty. I don’t know how many of my uncles served in World War II, more than I can remember, but my uncle Stan was the one who used to tell us war stories after a he’d had a few highballs. Some of his stories were thrilling and exciting and made warfare sound fun and romantic, like a great big adventure, which in a way I’m sure it was, drinking commandeered wine in a French farmhouse and putting the empty bottles on a stone fence for the German snipers up the hill to use for target practice. Other stories, especially about the death camps he helped to liberate, churned my young stomach and made me wish I hadn’t been there to listen. My other uncles didn’t like to talk about what happened to them in the war at all. Maybe it’s just as well. My younger uncles served in Korea, my dad, younger still, served in the Air Force during the brief peacetime between Korea and Vietnam. His brother Jim was a Marine.
Born in 1960, the Vietnam War was a constant presence on TV and in magazines and newspapers as I was growing up. “The War” was something I just took for granted, but only viewed second-hand through the media. Then one day my mom asked me to help her pack a box of homemade chocolate chip cookies and some toiletries to send to my cousin, a combat infantryman recovering in an army field hospital from injuries sustained in combat in ‘Nam. That made “The War” seem real to me for the first time, something tangible that affected my personally. I asked her a lot of questions about what had happened to my cousin, what were the circumstances that led to his injuries, how serious were they and whether he would recover, but she didn’t have a lot of answers.
There were Memorial Days in my childhood when we happened to be back home in the little coal town my family hails from in Eastern Pennsylvania, where we would trek out to the cemetery to decorate the graves of all the vets in the family. None of them had actually died in combat, miraculously, but still. Given my family history, it was more or less inevitable that I would serve in the military when my time came. So when I found myself floundering around without a clear direction after a few years of college, the Marine Corps seemed like a good option. I figured a few years in uniform would put me on the same level with the rest of the vets in the family and also give me time to get my priorities straightened out. Besides, I needed a job.
Because of my family background and my military service in the most agile and lethal military force in the history of warfare, many people assume that my personal views should fall into the ultra-patriotic, ultra-nationalist camp, uncritically praising all of my fellow vets as “heroes” and instantly directing withering scorn and contempt toward anyone who fails to do the same. This viewpoint assumes that any conflict that puts U.S. troops into harm’s way is, by definition, the right thing to do, and that any criticism or skepticism of the military makes you a traitor. Plenty of vets do think this way, but in my experience, there is no stronger anti-war constituency than veterans. Think about it: what segment of society has a better understanding of why we really fight and whether the lives we have sacrificed and broken in all our nation’s many wars have been worth the cost, than the men and women who we call upon to actually do the dirty work?
We spend a lot of time and effort in this country indoctrinating people to salute the flag and praise the troops and never question what the troops are fighting for. We are taught to mindlessly say to returning combat vets, “Thank you for your service” and to assume that whatever their mission was, it involves protecting our freedom and our way of life. But does it really? How would you know if you have never served? People spout these rote phrases as if seeking absolution for their own failure to sacrifice anything meaningful in the service of something greater than their own personal concerns. Saying “I support the troops” is a hell of a lot easier than being one of the troops.
A lot of vets I know, myself included, find these facile pronouncements of gratitude cloying and utterly irrelevant. When people say they support the troops, I always ask them, what do they do, specifically, to support the troops? And the answer I usually get after a lot of probing and persistence is that they support the government’s decision to go to war, no matter what the reasons. That’s not supporting the troops. That’s supporting warfare. If you want to support the troops, go to a VA hospital and play cards with a multiple amputee who has PTSD, do something that involves a personal sacrifice and makes a vets life better, even if just for a few hours. Otherwise your words are completely empty and every vet knows it. Put your money where your mouth is.
Memorial Day is just one element of this indoctrination. We honor the troops who paid the ultimate price for serving our country by playing Frisbee and drinking beer at the beach. Nothing is too good for our dead soldiers, as long as it involves absolutely no self-sacrifice on our part. But what about the soldiers who survived combat with grave injuries, only to return home to a society that fears and mistrusts and abandons them? Let’s not talk about that – too awkward. Let’s just post an American flag meme on our Facebook page for the day and then hurry up and get to the barbecue.
The percentage of U.S. citizens who serve in the armed forces is at an all-time low right now, even as we wind down two of the longest wars in our country’s long and frequently sordid history of foreign military adventures. There is a complete disconnect nowadays between the military, a proud and distinct subculture within our society, and the rest of mainstream America who know nothing of the sacrifices being made in their name. Today, less than 0.5% of Americans serve in the military. In WWII the number was at 12%. It’s no wonder most Americans have no idea what the military is up to and resort to meaningless platitudes when they feel compelled to offer an opinion at all.
When I was in boot camp, I learned to idolize Major General Smedley Butler, who reached the pinnacle of leadership in the Marines and was one of the most highly decorated and respected officers in the history of the service, including twice winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for military service. He served in combat in 10 separate conflicts on 3 continents. Smedley Butler knew a thing or two about war, and about the reasons we fight. After retiring from service in 1931, he published a pamphlet entitled “War Is A Racket,” a scathing critique of war profiteering. In 1935, he published an article in the political magazine Common Sense, in which he summarized his feelings about his long and storied career as a Marine:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
How would we know if Smedley Butler’s jaundiced view of our military forces is correct if we haven’t had the experience to judge for ourselves? This distance between civilians and the military makes it easier for Presidents to engage in use of force abroad with no accountability from the public and represents a threat to the concept of civilian control of the military.
I want to mark this Memorial Day with a call to reduce this gulf between our society and the armed forces that do our bidding. Karl Eikenberry, a former Army commander and ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed in 2013 and put forward these recommendations, which I believe are worth our consideration:
Let’s start with a draft lottery. Americans neither need nor want a vast conscript force, but a lottery that populated part of the ranks with draftees would reintroduce the notion of service as civic obligation. The lottery could be activated when volunteer recruitments fell short, and weighted to select the best-educated and most highly skilled Americans, providing an incentive for the most privileged among us to pay greater heed to military matters…
Congress must also take on a larger role in war-making. Its last formal declarations of war were during World War II. It’s high time to revisit the recommendation, made in 2008 by the bipartisan National War Powers Commission, to replace the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires notification of Congress after the president orders military action, with a mandate that the president consult with Congress before resorting to force. This would circumscribe presidential power, but it would confer greater legitimacy on military interventions and better shield the president from getting all the blame when the going got tough…
Other measures to strengthen citizen engagement with the military should include decreased reliance on contractors for noncombat tasks, so that the true size of the force would be more transparent…
This Memorial Day, let’s rededicate ourselves to the idea that in a well-functioning democracy, citizens and soldiers must stand side by side in a relationship of mutual understanding and respect and work together toward achieving that goal.