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Point Austin: In Memoriam

On the wars that never end all wars

By Michael King, Fri., May 30, 2014

"If you think it's too expensive to take care of our veterans, then don't send them to war." – Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont

It seems disrespectful to let Memorial Day pass without a mention, even as the traditional date has been shoved sideways (in 1971) to enable our general entitlement to another three-day weekend. For the record, it's worth noting that the holiday was at least partially created in May of 1865, in Charleston, S.C., by freed slaves honoring the Union dead, including more than 250 prisoners-of-war who died there while imprisoned by Confederate troops. Reportedly, 10,000 people gathered for that first commemoration of what would eventually be more than 600,000 (on both sides) who died in the war that got the country thoroughly accustomed to the idea of mass military slaughter. (The war dead were roughly 2% of U.S. population at the time, or by contemporary analogy, 6 million.)

By comparison, World War II would kill only 400,000 Americans, and we wouldn't meet the Civil War total, by accumulation, until Vietnam. It was not for lack of practice. Clancy Sigal recently put the total of U.S. wars, major and minor, at about 70, and judging from a bit of web searching that sounds about right. "Big and small," Sigal wrote, "we've 'done' about 70 wars, starting with the mid-18th century so-called 'French and Indian wars,' where George Wash­ing­ton was blooded and when we got our first taste of industrially massacring Native Americans, mainly Ojibwas and Algon­quins who sided with the French against our British masters." Counting "13 major and 60 or so 'minor' wars," Sigal estimates the grand total of U.S. dead at 1.5 million – "Compared to the mass war slaughter in, say, Russia or China, that's small potatoes, but big potatoes for us." That number, of course, counts only those who died on "our" side; begin adding those others slaughtered, the millions directly in combat or by "collateral damage," and the burden grows indeed countless.

Sigal, who served in the military, acknowledges the outrage, horror, heroism, and romance of war, especially for young people, and concludes: "It's a dilemma. How to pay tribute to the war dead while giving pause to young men and women who may be thinking about stepping into the dead soldiers' combat boots?"

The Human Costs

When the holiday comes around, I inevitably recall Howard Zinn's Vietnam-era Boston Globe column on the subject: "We must be practical, say those whose practicality has consisted of a war every generation," it read in part. "We mustn't deplete our defenses, say those who have depleted our youth, stolen our resources. In the end, it is living people, not corpses, creative energy, not destructive rage, which are our only real defense, not just against other governments trying to kill us, but against our own, also trying to kill us." (In eloquent testimony to the Globe editors' actual beliefs in the Bill of Rights our young soldiers purportedly defend, following that June 2, 1976, Zinn column, they would publish no more.)

I'm ruminating on all these things not only because of the holiday, but because of the not-quite coincidence of the Veteran Affairs' scandal and President Barack Obama's announcement of the pending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghan­i­stan – after what will have been 15 years of imperial war. As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out on the Senate floor, the same people who insist on military solutions to every problem have little interest in paying the costs of the human consequences – indeed, actively obstruct paying those costs.

Hypocrisy, or just heedlessness? Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell, recounting his repeatedly inadequate treatment (rather, nontreatment) by VA hospitals, recently wrote, "Politicians and many hawkish Americans are quick to send our sons and daughters to go off to fight in wars on foreign soil, but reluctant to pay the cost." ("Thank You for Being Expendable," The New York Times, May 25.) However disgraceful the attempt by hospital bureaucrats to hide their inability to serve the volume of veterans needing care, the much greater disgrace is the failure of those who advocate, promote, and fund the endless U.S. wars to provide sufficient resources to care for those soldiers and their families inevitably devastated fighting them.

Neither Sweet nor Right

I'm lucky or brazen enough to have avoided military service, although since the end of the U.S. draft we've mostly contrived to wage war by economically-conscripted "volunteers" and foreign proxies. Lately, we've even increasingly relied on remote control weapons that offer convenience, anonymity, and deniability – and that confine the casualties largely to those without access to such technology. When those targeted have the audacity to fight back with whatever's at hand, we call them "terrorists."

"The old lie:" wrote Wilfred Owens nearly 100 years ago, "Dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori." On this yearly day, wrote Zinn, "Let the dead of past wars be honored. Let those who live pledge themselves never to embark on mass slaughter again."

He concluded, "Let us not set out, this Memorial Day, on the same old drunken ride to death."

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