I offer a post-Memorial Day reflection on a holiday I have never liked. I propose instead a sober, fearless national examination the other 364 days each year on our endless imperial wars, with the last Monday in May reserved for a day off to experience what life might feel like without them.
I also deplore focus on America’s war dead rather than the far, far greater numbers America has killed in our nearly continuous wars of choice. The aggregate death toll in Southeast Asia in the 1970s inflicted by direct, indirect and proxy US aggression and political destabilization in Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia was approximately 7,650,000. The US death toll was 58,220, a ratio in our favor of 132/1. In our gratuitously justified “War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Physicians for Social Responsibility estimated 1.3 million Muslims killed while some 6,800 Americans have died, a ratio of 191/1. And that estimate excluded our destruction of Libya and ongoing proxy war on Syria with an American death toll limited to four in Benghazi and probably a few Special Forces “advisers” in Syria. Our victims deserve at least six to ten months of continuous memorial days to one day of ours, and our appropriate national mood should be not grief but remorse.
Public support for US wars depends upon racist propaganda: abstract categorization of other people with dehumanization of the category, what 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “invidious distinctions” that obliterate others’ personal identity, dignity and value. Bewitched by invidious language, well-meaning but naive recruits to fight our imperial wars return irreversibly traumatized by indelible, inescapable memories of the people – not “gooks,” “hajis,” “ragheads” or 10-year-old “enemy combatants” – they have killed and/or seen killed. For memorial day reflections I recommend video testimonies at the 2008 Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Springs, MD, archived at the IVAW.org website and Democracy Now! For memorial day realism, the talk there by Jeremy Scahill remains as relevant today as it was eight years ago. And the talk by Dr. Dahlia Wasfi (at 13:50) memorializes Rachel Corrie, a war hero and victim without weapon or uniform.
Throughout living memory our country has displayed a repeated dysfunctional cultural script, not a moral growth curve, not cultural maturation. In a 1933 speech, the once most decorated Marine in US history, Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, recounted, “I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
“I helped make Mexico, 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 benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
“During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could 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.”
In his 1935 book, War is a Racket, Butler continued, “A few profit – and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can’t end it by disarmament conferences. You can’t eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can’t wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war.”
Butler’s experience-based understanding is conceptualized by Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin as “inverted totalitarianism” where industrial capitalism controls the state rather than 1930s fascism where the state dictated the industrial agenda. Now facing imminent, catastrophic climate change with human and most other life hanging in the balance, we must starve the military-industrial beast and shift our resources to massive alternative energy development, planetary reforestation and soil restoration, and other climate change abatement measures. To do so we must dismantle the propaganda machine propelling resources into self-degrading international violence.
Every high school in America should assign Butler’s short book as homework before, over or after the Memorial Day holiday weekend, followed by lessons disclosing to every prospective military recruit the bloody truth of our monstrous, unbroken record of post-WWII violence and wholesale violations of international law.
Similarly, on MLK day, more important than the “I have a dream” speech, students should study King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech where he declared our country “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Nearly a half century later nothing has changed. New generations must question why, arise against war, and do so quickly.
Less innocent than they appear, holidays typically serve mythic agendas. Heroic tales supplant essential facts and perspectives we desperately need. The truth of America’s relentless imperial militarism necessary to radically shift our priorities is never told.
The only meaningful way to honor veterans is to stop producing them by dishonoring war.