For most of my years as a veteran, I dismissed Memorial Day as a day filled with patriotic blather intended to gloss over the cost of war. For me, the speeches and ceremonies are propaganda to convince Americans that our wars and our many dead were absolutely and unequivocally necessary, that every drop of American blood shed is shed in pursuit of our loftiest ideals and that, absent these sacrifices, our nation would be subservient to evil foreign dictators and our cherished freedoms a long-distant memory. No doubt my experience serving in a war that was none of these things left me cynical about speeches and ceremonies.
My cynicism never extended to the men and women whose memory we honor. By completely dismissing Memorial Day, I ignored a chance to remember their courage and sacrifice. I no longer make that mistake. Personal experience taught me what is required of soldiers at war. We are asked to perform the most inhuman act, killing another human being. Think of it as surrendering a piece of your conscience. It’s a psychic wound, a lasting one. A wound that will heal at all only if the sacrifice has meaning and even then the healing is incomplete. That’s why we attach such importance to patriotism and ideals. As a soldier, I will remember those sacrifices. I will also remember that the wars of my lifetime have been unnecessary and we sacrificed in vain.
By the time I went to Vietnam, few of us believed in the war or the missions we were assigned. It was simply something to get through and be done with. We acknowledged our nation’s claim on us. To that end, we sacrificed a year of our lives, endured discomforts and fear and hoped we would make it out alive. I suspect the case with much of the conscript army that fought in Vietnam. I know all sacrificed. Some died as heroes. Others died in stupid accidents or on fucked up missions. In all cases, their deaths occurred because they were willing to serve their country. And in all cases, those deaths did nothing for the nation that demanded them. Heroism and sacrifice there was aplenty. What was lacking was a national interest worthy of that heroism and sacrifice. The same is true of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This nation cannot truly honor the sacrifices of its soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. That opportunity was squandered by leaders who sent Americans into harm’s way serve short-sighted, ill-informed and decidedly narrow interests. In Vietnam we fought for a “domino theory” against anti-colonial nationalist forces who claimed America’s Revolutionary ideals as their own. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia we fight to secure economic advantage in an increasingly resource scarce and interdependent world. Oh sure, we hear words like national security, freedom and democracy but those words are window dressing that are supposed to convince us and the soldiers we ask to sacrifice that the mission serves some national purpose, some “flaming, fatal climax” worthy of that sacrifice.
I am not at all convinced.
And so we come to another Memorial Day and will once again hear the all the words that tell us that these sacrifices are not in vain, that they have meaning. If we were serious about honoring those who have sacrificed on our behalf, the words we would speak are, “Never Again.”
Call me a dreamer.
SOLDIERS are citizens of death's gray land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Siegfried Sassoon. 1886–1967