Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day 2007: They Died for Our Freedoms?

They died in Europe, for Europe, and for ideas bigger than any nation

It is Memorial Day in the United States. Originally known as Decoration Day when instituted in 1868, the holiday was intended to recognise the sacrifices made by both sides in the American Civil War, up until that point the bloodiest conflict by the ratio of combatants killed or wounded the world had yet seen. As the years passed the holiday lost its association with a specific conflict and has come to serve as a national day of remembrance for all Americans killed in war from the fight for independence to the current day.

An exercise in national remembrance is a worthy thing, especially in an age where distractions and invitations to disunity abound. A little contemplation does us good, whether as individuals or in collective units. It is disheartening (although inevitable) however to constantly hear the rhetorical pablum that has become associated with Memorial Day.

The most common irksome phrase, and the one I want to waste this post considering, is "They died for our freedoms". One hates to be churlish when considering the memorialization of victims of circumstances largely beyond their control, but no, no they didn't.

At no point since the Civil War has the United States been involved in an existential war, the loss of which would result in the external imposition of an entirely new form of government resulting in the substantial loss of the ideals of freedom enshrined in the constitution. (I must say "ideals of freedom" as even today every promise of liberty contained in the constitution encounters either legislative caveats or extra-legal constraints on its route to the people. If the constitution had been fully implemented from the start and free of impediment today there would be no need for the Supreme Court to act as a freedom adjudicator).

The majority of the United States' wars fall into one of two categories- expansionist or ideological. In the expansionist phase, there was little risk that the Plains Indians, the Mexicans, or the Spanish colonial administrators of Cuba and the Philippines would have mounted a cavalry charge up Pennsylvania Avenue, deposed the president, and planted their flag in the Rose Garden. In the ideological phase, although fraught with dangers and with the prospect of a much-diminished America should defeat ensue the wars were fought overseas in support of concepts- democracy, human rights, vengeance, the free movement of capital, and so on- not to protect hearth and home. Even if Eisenhower been pushed from the beaches on D Day or if Nimitz had his fleet sunk from under him in the Pacific there was very little chance that New York would have been conquered and named "Neue Berlin" or Los Angeles would see a sushi restaurant on every block (oh, wait a minute- bad analogy). Defeat in an expeditionary war of ideology does not mean the end of the American way of life. There are proofs of this: Vietnam and Somalia.

So as you can see, it is not true but rather merely infantile and unthinking to say that the vast majority of America's war dead "died for our freedoms". In many cases they died for no less worthy causes (such as the freedom of others) and in some cases they died for fantasies (such as the idea that the USS Maine was sunk by the Spanish, or the idea of Iraq as a oasis of peace and democracy in a Middle Eastern nuclear free zone). They did not die however, to stop the Germans over-running, oooh, lets say Remsen, Iowa.

But is it such a bad thing, to simplify the idea of Americans dying for a mess of (sometimes contradictory) concepts to "They died for our freedoms"? After all, the sentiment and drive behind the desire to remember come from good places. While it is true that a wish to pause and take stock of those who have suffered for the name and beliefs of one's particular tribe is quite admirable, the problem is that the over-simplification of why they died does a double disservice. First, it is a demonstration of laziness unbeffiting those who fell. If one wants to remember beyond going through the motions, it would behoove one to know a little of the circumstances in which these many, many people died. Second, the phrase "They died for our freedoms" is a thought-killer and in antithesis to many of these freedoms people allege folks died for. Like "Support our troops" it is a mashed potato sentence; easily spoonfed to infants and the aged alike, slipping down the throat with ease, and easy to digest. It also kills debate- many people may dislike pre-emptive war, feel ashamed at the slaughter of the Native Americans, or question the utility of dropping cluster bombs on villages that may house a few insurgents among the civillian population, but who hates freedom?

Alas, the currency of this phrase will probably only grow. While in the shower this morning I heard some gormless DJ (on a sports radio station, no less) exclaim with more than a hint of gleeful malice in his voice that he held no truck with those who thought that journalists, litigators, politicians, and thinkers had contributed to the sum of human freedoms- all freedom comes at the point of a bayonet. Tell that to Gandhi, who was all four and liberated hundreds of millions of Indians in the face of the bayonets.

By all means take time to remember. But also take time to think. And what ever you do, don't confuse Abraham Lincoln's phrase: right makes might, and not the other way around. Confusion of freedom and national identity with the boots and banners of the military is what did for the Prussians and ultimately, if left unchecked, it will do for the United States as well.

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