Memorial Day, 2011
"My country right or wrong. If right, to be kept right and if wrong to be set right."
- Sen. Carl Schurz, R. Mo., 1913
I rode my bicycle downtown Monday morning to watch Falmouth's Memorial Day parade, and then I wandered over to the library lawn to attend the ceremonies there. The usual lineup of collared clergy and garrison capped veterans led prayer and spoke movingly between musical interludes, with stirring performances of the Star Spangled Banner, the United States Navy Anthem and so forth. It was, appropriately, all very solemn and sad.
The most solemn sight, however, and the saddest for me, was the lone figure of a man I have known since high school standing stock still and silently throughout the ceremonies with his back turned to the podium across the wide, green lawn. He was standing next to a stone marker, one of several which line one side of the curved Memorial Walk adjacent to Main Street in front of the Library. Each of the stones is capped by a bronze plaque with the name of a young Falmouth man who was killed in action during one or another of America's several 20th Century wars.
My old acquaintance was standing quiet vigil over the stone marker for someone else I had known in high school -someone who, as the boy I knew, had been an outstanding student, an athlete and all-around good-guy. I was a year ahead of this young man in school, and he had succeeded me in the starting backfield of the Lawrence High football team the fall after I graduated in 1962. I didn't know it back then, but when my son joined Boy Scout Troop 42 a few years ago, I learned that this young man had also been one of the Troop's first Eagle Scouts.
He wasn't one of my close buddies in school, but he was a football teammate and someone I both knew and liked. I was a townie kid back then, and this boy was from East Falmouth, as was the gentleman standing over his memorial stone on Monday, and I am almost certain that the two of them had grown up together, through Sunday School at St. Anthony's, kindergarten and grade school all the way through high school.
Then in 1963 they both went off to college, with the one who is now forever young having gone through ROTC. He came out of college commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Army, then went to Viet Nam and had all that just snuffed out forever in 1968. Something similar had happened to my Mom's favorite cousin, Lieutenant John Russo, a generation earlier while hitting the beach at Normandy, and she never really got over it.
I often ride my bike downtown during the summer months, and every time I pass those stone markers on Memorial Walk, my old teammate's marker is the only one that I really notice. There were several young Falmouth kids killed in Viet Nam who are now remembered by the larger community only by their stone markers next to the Library lawn, and once annually during the official Memorial Day ceremonies when their names are called out, but I had always sensed that this one kid had a real future ahead of him -that he was someone who would make a difference in the world. And every time I pass his stone marker I am reminded of how that promise would never be fulfilled, and how that is not merely tragic but absurdly obscene -as absurd and obscene as the American invasion and occupation of Viet Nam itself.
We the people, all people as human beings and not just as Americans or some other artificial, "patriotic" categorization, seek meaning in our lives, and we sincerely want to find meaning in the lives of others we know and admire. Over the decades, I had come to accept the fact that my fallen high-school friend, along with the others of my generation whose stones are lined along Memorial Walk -and so many thousands of others all across America, had at least died in the war that would, for all time, stand clearly for the futility and cynicism of American military adventurism overseas. Sadly, however, not even that can provide meaning today for the senseless loss of so many lives in the jungles of South East Asia some forty something years ago.
The death count for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was solemnly recounted by one of the speakers at the podium on Monday, is "only" around 4,500 to date, a small fraction of the number killed in Viet Nam. But the real tragedy of today's failed war for corporate opportunity in Iraq is as proof that we, the people of America, just let it happen again. The real tragedy is that we have forgotten the hard lesson of Viet Nam, and in so doing we have rendered meaningless the massive loss of young American lives in that singularly futile, cynical and failed exercise of military adventurism.
Now, please spare us all the right-wing cant about how those fallen young soldiers were "fighting for freedom," either in Iraq today or in Viet Nam back then. America's overseas wars, and we have started more of them during the 20th and 21st centuries than any other world power, have always been about one thing and one thing only -corporate opportunity to take advantage of another people's resources.
Be it sugar, oil, rubber, a natural gas pipeline or a convenient port for commercial shipping, the real focus of our overseas wars is always corporate profits, both in terms of expropriating foreign assets and in supporting the massive American defense industry with tax dollars and. more recently, a trillion or so borrowed dollars. That's another forgotten message, too -Ike's warning about the undue influence of the military-industrial complex on American politics.
The real shame is that so many Americans still let themselves fall for cynical corporate shills like Bush and Cheney, allowing themselves to be conned or scaremongered into the idea that a war designed specifically to gain access to another country's resource, like the vast oil reserves in Iraq, is somehow all about "freedom" and "democracy." The absurd obsenity is clearly seen on the editorial pages of a rag like the Boston Herald, all over Barney Frank for getting his boyfriend an entry level job at Fannie Mae, but not a peep about the multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts Cheney got for his pals at Halliburton, Bechtel and KB&R to help privatize his oil war in Iraq -a crystal clear example of Ike's military -industrial complex at work in American politics.
So before spouting right wing slogans about "fighting for freedom" in Viet Nam -or Iraq today, consider this. If the invasion and prolonged occupation of Viet Nam had anything to do with preserving our "freedom," why didn't we lose any freedom after we lost that war, which is what in fact happened? If my high school friend and so many other young Americans were in fact fighting and dying for "freedom" back then, a fight which we in fact lost, please explain why we didn't see the jackbooted Viet Cong goosestepping down Main Street here in Falmouth on Monday, instead of the Falmouth High School band, the Brian Boru pipers and a cadre of aging veterans wearing American flag pins and garrison caps.
The really galling part of all this is the fact that, unlike my high school friend whose memory is now graven in Bronze on Memorial Walk, Bush and Cheney -the instigators who lied us into the invasion and occupation of Iraq, had both been of age back in the 'sixties, and both of them studiously avoided going over to Viet Nam and risking their lives and sanity there. That kid I knew back then didn't have a rich Poppy like Bush did, to get him a cushy Stateside Guard gig, playing at flying jet fighters over the open skies of Alabama on the taxpayers' dime.
That brave young man wasn't a cynical and soulless me-first creep like Cheney, either, an armchair "patriot" who cheered for the troops but had all those "other priorities" back then and so just had to dodge the draft. No, that young man believed the corporate lies back then about fighting for "freedom" and, unlike Bush and Cheney, he did the honorable thing of acting on his beliefs by enlisting. How different that genuine patriotism is from the kind of phony lip-service we always hear from the American right about "supporting the troops" while electing GOP political hacks who want to cut veterans benefits.
We can honor the memory of such young men on Memorial Day, victims of the corporate scam as much as they are heroes, without having to buy into the lie that the wars they fought and died in, be it Viet Nam then or Iraq today, had anything to do with freedom, democracy or anything else in defense of We the People of America. As U.S. Senator, and former Union Army General Carl Schurz observed in 1898:
The man who in times of popular excitement boldly and unflinchingly resists hot-tempered clamor for an unnecessary war, and thus exposes himself to opprobious imputation of a lack of patriotism or of courage, to the end of saving his country from a great calamity, is . . . at least as good a patriot as the hero of the most daring feat of arms, and a far better one than those who, with an ostentatious pretense of superior patriotism, cry for war before it is needed, especially if then they let others do the fighting.
Bush and Cheney are precisely the ostentatious pretenders that Sen. Schurz was talking about, and to recognize their utter cynicism and dishonesty in manipulating public opinion to support the oil war in Iraq for what it is, even as we honor those who fought and died in that war, is the essence of true patriotism.
It is also the only way we can infuse any meaning at all into the deaths of so many young Americans who have died in such wars for corporate opportunity, to recognize that they in fact died in service of a lie, like Bush's non-existent "imminent threat" in Iraq, the "smoking gun" that would somehow become a "mushroom cloud," and to vow that we won't ever let the corporate elite get away with it again. Without that recognition and commitment, the loss of so many young American lives becomes nothing but a morass of absurd obscenity. Without such commitment, the honor remains with the fallen soldiers, but the shame falls on us as We the People,.
Professor Gordon Ourside has kindly offered to provide the following musical afterword to this post, which fairly and succinctly summarizes the main point. That is, simply stated, if you don't want to see your children killed in a needless and pointless war, don't vote for the politicians who want to start such wars on behalf of the corporate elite.
Instead, just say that can't never happen no more -and really mean it the next time around.