Freedom, we are often told, is not free. Today is Memorial Day: the official day we set aside to remember those who gave their lives for our country. It is not, contrary to modern custom, a day set aside for shopping or to head home from the beach. However, if you did do these things, I hope you took time to contemplate those who died to secure our freedoms.
I am thinking hard today about the meaning of the millions of our soldiers who have died for our country. I am also thinking hard about when we should use military force and when we should not.
Politicians, American Legion members and many old-fashioned patriots still visit cemeteries on Memorial Day. They honor our fallen soldiers by placing wreaths, flowers or American flags on their graves. I confess I have yet to visit a military cemetery on Memorial Day. This is doubly shameful because Arlington National Cemetery is only twenty miles from my house. For me honoring our fallen soldiers amounts to putting out our American flag on our porch.
Memorial Day originally commemorated those who died on both sides of the Civil War. It was meant not just to honor the fallen but also to help with our national healing. Our Civil War was a great national travesty. Memorial Day was meant in part for us to keep this travesty always fresh in our minds, so that our country would never endure a civil war again. Now the holiday embraces all soldiers who died in service to our country.
I am sure I am not the only one that finds it ironic that, in order to be free, we need citizens who will defend our country by killing and maiming other people if necessary. We all hope for the day when the occupation of soldier becomes as obsolete as tinkers and milkmen. Until that day comes (and the liberal in me wants to think it is possible), we need soldiers to do bestial things to other human beings when directed by our Commander in Chief. Granted, killing is not all the military does. More often these days their role is to maintain peace rather than inflict violence. In addition to over a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth noting that we also have troops in places like Kosovo. These soldiers ensure that ethnic Serbs, Croatians and Albanians do not resume slaughtering each other. This too is a supremely noble purpose for a soldier.
Soldiers are a painful necessity because we still live in a world full of regional, religious, ethnic and nationalistic clans. Not all will necessarily agree to behave in a civilized way if they do not get there way. Therefore, in some sense our need for soldiers represents both a failure of our human potential and the political process.
I am certainly grateful for my freedom. When I turned 18, I was fortunate not to have the dilemma that many of my slightly older peers faced. By 1975, the Vietnam War was over. While the draft was gone, I still had to register with the Selective Service System. I remember the chill I felt during the Iranian hostage crisis. There was talk in Congress about reinstating the draft. I was out of college and my life was settling down. The last thing I wanted to do was fight in a foreign war. Fortunately, the draft was not reinstated.
Today no one’s arms are twisted to fill our military: only volunteers do our nation’s dirty work. Frankly, I am humbled that so many Americans choose to serve, particularly today when the risk death or permanent disability is more than theoretical. Today, as we honor soldiers who gave their lives for our country, I am also grateful and enormously sympathetic to the families that carried the burden of their loved one’s death. It is certainly honorable to honor our fallen soldiers today. Perhaps the best way to show that we really care is to support the families of our fallen soldiers. For it is they who must somehow carry on despite enormous grief, anguish and loss.
Politicians can honor the fallen too. They can do so not just by placing wreaths and making solemn speeches as our president did today. They can do everything possible to avoid having to send our soldiers into war in the first place. In my mind, even before we invaded, our war in Iraq was wholly unnecessary. It is now clear that the war was a tragic error in judgment of gargantuan proportions. Our politicians and our president failed our soldiers on March 21st, 2003, the day we invaded Iraq. Our president failed to ask the necessary questions and check the quality of the intelligence. Our politicians did not perform their role of properly checking the Executive Branch before sending our soldiers to war. Yet by implication, we cannot escape culpability either. For we voted these people into office. So far, we have not held them accountable for their lapse in judgment. As a result, thousands of our soldiers have died in Iraq, seemingly unnecessarily.
If the War in Iraq continues to devolve, as it seems certain to, then perhaps we best honor those who gave their lives in Iraq by ensuring this kind of tragedy never happens again. We can do it this November by removing from office those who voted for this war, and putting into office those sober enough to fully exercise due diligence. For as much as President Bush might want it otherwise, Congress is a coequal branch of government. It has the sole responsibility to declare war and, by implication, the power to prevent it. I thought we had learned our lesson after Vietnam. It is sad and shameful that on this Memorial Day we honor over two thousand of our soldiers who bravely and heroically served their country, paid the ultimate price, but apparently did so in vain. They were called and they dutifully and honorably served. However, we failed them by sending them to an unnecessary war.
This Memorial Day let us do something meaningful for a change. First, let us support the families of the fallen, as many of us are already doing. Second, let us bring our troops home from Iraq in a gradual but systematic way. But most importantly, let us as a nation take this solemn vow: to never send our soldiers into a needless war again.