Monday, May 30, 2011

Forgotten on Memorial Day

The parades, flags and mass prayers are meant to honor men and women who died nobly for their country, but they also commemorate the barbaric enterprise of those who sent them to kill and be killed for reasons that are not fully understood and shared by fellow Americans.

Since World War II, our young people have been giving up their lives in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and smaller wars elsewhere with no clear consensus about the goals. On this of all days, shouldn’t we question why they have to do so?

As a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, I left and came back to a country united in an agreed-on reality--to defeat a Nazi war machine bent on world domination. Since then, younger generations have given their lives for abstractions such as the Domino Theory of Communism and the War on Terror, the former turning out to be a fallacy, the latter clearly heading that way.

This gap between the bravery of those who wear the uniform and the muddled motives of those who send them into danger makes a sad mockery of Memorial Day.

On 60 Minutes, Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor awardee in this century, describes himself as an “average, mediocre” soldier and says, "I'm not at peace with that at all. And coming and talking about it and people wanting to shake my hand because of it, it hurts me because it's not what I want.”

What Giunta feels will be understood by anyone who has been a soldier and knows that the essence of war is doing what has to be done and that circumstances, not individual choice, determine the rest. When the risks get higher in some situations, as Giunta’s, soldiers don’t stop to calculate the odds and are certainly not seeking rewards.

This kind of selfless behavior is at the other end of the human spectrum from politics, where everything is done not out of a sense of duty to others, no matter what the consequences, but for calculated self-advantage.

On Memorial Day, we should, of course, cherish those who wear the uniform, but our bearing witness is incomplete without acknowledging the darker side of their service.

TV screens are full of heroic John Wayne movies, but they should also show Paddy Chayevsky’s anti-war satire, “The Americanization of Emily,” in which the World War II protagonist bitterly proclaims:

“War isn't hell at all. It's man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of. It's not war that's insane, you see. It's the morality of it. It's not greed or ambition that makes war: it's goodness.

“Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we've managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us, it's virtue.”

At the very least, as we honor those brave souls who have given their lives, we should be asking questions that might keep future generations from having to do the same in the pursuit of such absurdities.

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