As a member of a military family that has served honorably for generations, I have a deep respect for Memorial Day, both its significance and symbolism. I humbly acknowledge that there are countless men and women no longer with us who have supremely earned both our remembrance and respect this day.
But I am troubled at what a mess the govnerment makes of this holiday. You see, Memorial Day is drenched in patriotic sentiment and unfortunately, such fervor is often taken advantage of and misdirected by the state. There is no human emotion which can be of greater value to the state authorities. Pericles knew its power and masterfully directed it, as did Napoleon, Stalin, Roosevelt and Bush.
Obama, too, knows its power and he, like many other politicians before him, has paid the dutiful and predictable homage that Americans have come to expect from their leaders on Memorial Day.
Sadly, on a day which should be reserved for mourning the enormous costs imposed by the government’s wars on individuals and their families, the government self-servingly uses this day to sing its own praises. Let me take you through the idiocies of a typical Memorial Day speech, whether it is made by Obama, your mayor or your pastor.
First, there is the error of sweepingly characterizing deceased soldiers as built of the same selfless, sacrificial stock, as though they all died doing noble deeds and thinking noble thoughts. No matter what war the politician is talking about, no matter the diverse situations, the various martial objectives, the soldier is always and unfailingly depicted as being comprised of the same pure, sacrificial nature.
But surely this is not true. Common experience tells us that very few people live the same way and even fewer think the same way. There is no such thing as an ‘Army of One.’ Men, even men harnessed beneath a common yoke, do not lose their individuality. Good men go to war just as bad men do. Noble men and ignoble men too. War is not a redeemer of men. The battlefield does not purify sinful men and make them holy. If anything, the battlefield smears bloody stains on both the good and the bad alike. Surely, the scrupulous on the battlefield are aware of this cruel perversity of war and troubled by it.
It is also an utter falsehood that all soldiers die nobly. Worse, it is an insult to those who truly did die with distinction and honor. To lump all soldiers in the same class, as though the mere act of showing up with a rifle is all that is needed to earn military medals and public esteem, is a gross misconception and distortion of what it means to fight bravely and admirably.
We ought instead to admit that soldiers die like the rest of us: scared, helpless, confused, and wishing desperately for a chance to change the past, or to make better in the future. But the soldier’s death is surely worse than ours, with every grief and torment being compounded by the trauma, terror and sadness that accompanies war.
There is another erroneous point about soldiers dying for the rest of us that they are dying in order that we might live one more day in peace and security. The notion that the blood of American soldiers is being spilt, and needs to be spilt, in order to purchase the rest of us one more sweet day of peace is a very Orwellian concept, which should shock and offend the deepest notion of common sense and morality in all of us. Still, we should not be at all surprised that the paradoxical “war is peace” mentality is so readily adopted by the state. As it has been famously said, war is the health of the state.
But what is the health of the state is the death of the people. That which enables and promotes the health of the state is quite unhealthy for the individual. Wars and conquest allow the state to expand and solidify its high station of dominance. But for people it is the opposite. Wars do not make the world healthier and happier; the world grows sicklier and sadder because of them.
Lastly, there is this related notion that soldiers die not just to promote our security, but also our freedoms. This is surely the most objectively falsifiable claim of all. Examine any war you wish in history. The individual freedoms, like freedom of speech, association, etc., always contract. The recent war is only one in a long series that has conformed to this generality. War is a convenient and convincing excuse to limit and remove the rights which Americans hold most dear, the rights which, oddly enough, America’s wars are intended supposedly to secure.
Memorial Day is a worthy holiday, and one that I believe Americans do well to give pause and reflection to. But this is not a day to celebrate wars or even fallen warriors. It is a day which we must mourn them both. As we listen to all the emotional and grand speeches, we must be discerning and not mistake idiotic utterances lined with wreaths as a fitting tribute for our nation’s soldiers. We must not gullibly believe that all soldiers have died for proper and noble causes. We must remember that nations, even ours, sometimes, if not frequently, go to war for wrong and selfish reasons. And we must not, above all, mistake patriotism as a willingness or obligation to go to war. True patriotism must ever bear in mind the immense and incalculable costs that war incurs, not on the State, but on ordinary people. Finally, we must remember this day not to celebrate what wars have gained us, but instead all that we have lost by them.
Jeremy Hicks is a 2008 political science graduate, the founder of the Cal Poly Libertarian Club and a Mustang Daily political columnist.