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Memorial Day was this week and once again the media is full of trite platitudes about veterans being heroes. This overblown rhetoric on patriotic holidays is misleading and harmful in many ways. It promotes militarism, supports excessive military spending, and makes the next war possible.
As history professor and retired Lt. Colonel William J. Astore has said,
“Our troops are, of course, human and vulnerable and imperfect. We don’t help them when we put them on pedestals, give them flags to hold in the breeze, and salute them as icons of a feel-good brand of patriotism. Talk of warrior-heroes is worse than cheap: it enables our state of permanent war, elevates the Pentagon, ennobles the national security state, and silences dissent.”
Andrew Bacevich, another retired military officer and professor of history, thinks say we endlessly repeat these platitudes out of guilt.
“To assuage uneasy consciences, the numerous who don’t serve [in the all-volunteer military] proclaim their excessive regard for the few who do. This has vaulted America’s combating women and men to the highest of the nation’s ethical hierarchy.”
I think the reasons are more basic. The real purpose of glorifying veterans as heroes is to maintain recruiting goals and to keep the money flowing to the defense industries. We have been lied to by the recruiters, politicians, and war profiteers. We only deceive ourselves when we buy into, and repeat, the false narratives about veterans.
When a big lie is repeated it must countered with repetition of the truth. So I repeat the 2016 article “Promoting the Next War.”
Memorial Day is about honoring the military service members who have died in our many wars. There will be somber ceremonies at cemeteries. There will be parades to honer the patriotism and sacrifice of military service. But the vast majority of people will not bother to attend these events. For most people Memorial Day is simply the beginning of the summer BBQ season.
We have a culture of violence and militarism. Many of our national myths are based on violence. The six gun-toting cowboy, the tough cop, the military hero, and mafia godfather are typical Hollywood themes. Even our national anthem is all about war and “bombs bursting in air.”
The media sustains this culture of violence with its slanted, propagandist reporting. The media rarely provides accurate information, perspective on issues, historical context, or views contrary to the accepted story lines. An example is the reporting on issues related to war and the military. Peace and alternatives to war are rarely covered and never in any depth.
Around patriotic holidays, like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, this culture is promoted with speeches honoring the “sacrifice” of our troops. They died to “defend freedom” and protect our way of life.
Implied in these stories is that our many wars were necessary and justified. In our zeal to honor military service we create a mythology of hero worship and glorification of war that gives legitimacy to violence and militarism.
As long as the media endlessly sustains this myth we will have endless wars and an endless stream of dead and wounded coming back from these unnecessary wars. In Duluth this Memorial Day the news was full of trite stories about the sacrifice of veterans. The people speaking out for peace were largely ignored.
I do not denigrate the sacrifice of combat veterans. They have suffered. Their sacrifice should be remembered. But these memories should motivate us to say, “never again.”
Our troops, and their families, are actually victims of war the same as the “enemy” and the many civilian casualties or “collateral damage.” Our callousness to the suffering and death of our troops and innocent people shows our acceptance of violence as a instrument of national policy.
The truth is our many wars and military interventions have not been for “freedom” or noble causes.
For all of human existence wars have been about stealing resources, protecting territory, and fear of the other tribes. Those “others” wanted our horses or slaves. They wanted the better hunting grounds. They wanted the gold or the oil. They had strange customs and religions. They were different. Sometimes they had different economic systems like communism. We should not fool ourselves that our modern motivations are any different. We are NOT exceptional. We are human. The details, weapons and technologies have changed but human nature is the same.
Endless war does not make us safer, more secure, or more free. Each new war adds strength to the culture of violence as more veterans come home with PTSD, drug addiction, and desensitized to violence.
Historically each war has weakened our civil liberties and democracy. The executive branch has grown more powerful.
The first world war brought the Sedition Act of 1918 and the “red scare” paranoia over communism.
World War II had the incarceration of Japanese Americans.
The Cold War created McCarthyism with loyalty oaths, guilt by association, and the outlawing of dissenting political views.
With the war on terror, we have the Patriot Act and the NSA electronic surveillance. We have undeclared wars, searches without probable cause, no fly lists, torture, and targeted assassinations by our government.
We see the results of our culture of violence in the militarization of our police, our borders and our foreign policy.
We see it in the demonizing of Islamic and middle eastern peoples. They are the current “others.”
We see it in the paranoia of the war on terror. We also see it in the huge share of our national resources dedicated to war.
The extreme amount of our budget devoted to defense beggars all other social, political and economic needs.
Unfortunately, many people buy into the militaristic propaganda. Most politicians, even liberals, have to repeat the mantra to prevent being branded unpatriotic.
We need to change the way we think and what we honor. President John F. Kennedy said, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”
We need to be honest with ourselves about our history and the real reasons for our many wars. We need to reject the culture of violence and militarism. We can appropriately honor those who died serving our country without honoring war. Then we can begin to build the attitudes and institutions that foster peace, diplomacy, and international cooperation.