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Memorial Day: Taking Ownership Of Our Wars

May 31st, 2010 by Alison · No Comments · politics

Happy Memorial Day.  I recently had a conversation with a new friend, Cynthia, who had grown up in a military family. 3487911314_df26f23c13-238x300(I met her  in the  excellent week-long Nia dance intensive I just completed). Cynthia and I agreed that as painful as the Vietnam War was for all concerned, the fact that it involved a draft made us in the U.S. grapple with the war in a sharply different way than we are dealing with the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the Vietnam era, the draft meant that everyone had a brother, son, friend, nephew, husband, boyfriend, uncle or grandson who could be forced to fight and die in Vietnam. People couldn’t ignore the Vietnam war; it was personal. The draft forced us us to take honest ownership of it. Were we truly willing for our loved ones to be maimed and killed in the existing political circumstances? Were they, themselves, willing? Resistance to the war was large and understandable.

Now, with no draft, and a poor economy that pulls people with low incomes and limited choices disproportionately into the military while leaving the rest of us unaffected, it’s easy for a U.S. citizen to feel no ownership or responsibility for  the two wars we are paying for with our tax dollars. These wars kill large numbers of civilians, are largely driven by our national addiction to cheap petroleum, and are immoral, in my view.

To be honest, I myself rarely think about our dual, open-ended wars in the Mideast.  But I should. If we had a draft, or even a clear and steady stream of information from the media about how much of our paychecks we are each personally spending on these wars via the federal income taxes we pay, we would become a lot more dedicated to seeking peace. And peace is supposed to be what any given war is seeking.

If you’re interested in another take on today’s holiday, the following piece of mine was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on Memorial Day, 2003.

I have some mixed feelings about Memorial Day.

On one hand, I deeply respect people – in this case, soldiers and veterans – who work and struggle for causes larger than themselves, and are willing to die for their cause. I’d like to be as devoted and courageous as they are.

On the other hand, I want a world in which our children and grandchildren advance freedom and justice, yet die peacefully, and are never maimed or murdered in wars, nor inflict that on others. Is that vision less than patriotic on my part?

I look to history to help me understand patriotism and progress. I read that the ancient Aztec culture made thousands of human sacrifices annually because they believed those deaths would appease their gods and protect them from danger. One million women (a conservative estimate) deemed witches, largely due to their use of plant-based medicines and healing arts, were burned at the stake during Europe’s Middle Ages in the conviction that those torturous deaths were for the greater good.  In the 21st century, we see these cultures as having been sick and mistaken. But the cultural fears of those times justified the slaughter as necessary.

Similarly, our modern fears justify our modern slaughters, our wars. We frame war as a last resort we employ only to protect ourselves. Yet, the not-violent revolutions and regime changes in the former Soviet Union and South Africa show that human freedom and progress can happen, on grand scales, without war. Possibly, our great-great grandchildren will see the sacrifices of human life we made in the wars of the 20th century as inhuman and unnecessary – the same way we now understand the witch-burnings of medieval Europe and the human sacrifices of the Aztecs.

Entertaining that possibility does not diminish my respect on Memorial Day for the American soldiers who have died, and the veterans who have been crippled, physically and emotionally, by war.  I want their descendants to suffer less than they did, to win even better advances for humanity – as warriors of peace. That vision is my version of patriotism.

photo courtesy of BL1961

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