Memorial Day roundup, or, “Why I am reticent to celebrate.”

I don’t remember feeling more uncomfortable about Memorial Day than I do this year. I used to be an ardent supporter of “the troops.” I remember in high school that I defended George Bush’s “moral leadership.” I used to be Wilsonian, hellbent on making the world safe for capital-d Democracy. This was 2004, about the time that it was indisputable that there were in fact no WMDs. I subsequently followed my obstinate brethren in the regress to the argument “well, we’re here now, so we gotta see it through.” Then I went to college and learned about sunk costs. It didn’t make sense anymore to say we had to keep moving forward — the unnecessary death and destruction was on our moral balance sheet regardless. As college wore on, I was a proud campus libertarian — an equal opportunity sparring partner with liberals and conservatives. By the time college ended, though, I was further left on war than most prominent campus liberals. This is because most college students are politically engaged more than philosophically engaged, meaning that, because of the national ethos that holidays like Memorial Day represents, you line up and eulogize the “heroes” no matter that. You draw lines around things like the fairness of millionaires paying more taxes — not military service. Everyone supports the military. Defense funding comes down to whether you want a massive war machine or a titanic one. You clap for soldiers on a plane who could very well be awful people. Doesn’t matter. Not the point. You pay homage. These days, it makes me sick to my stomach.

That’s my story. Thankfully, I’m not alone. There are others, and I want to share their words:

  • Chris Hayes on his latest show on how we remember and honor troops, but could frankly care less about the civilians we kill in multiples of our own dead. Only one of these groups was sacrificed against their will.

  • Freddie DeBoer:”I will simply say what I have always said about soldiers and the police: there is no such thing as praise that does not recognize the individual character of the person being praised. What our post-9/11 national conformity insisted was that we heap praise on the police, firefighters, and the military without any discrimination between individuals or any judgment of their particular characters. This, in fact, is not praise. It’s actually a profound assault on the possibility of real praise; it denies the existence of moral differences and squashes all actual praiseworthy conduct into a homogeneous, bland affirmation. Compliment without judgment isn’t good enough for dogs or children. It shouldn’t be good enough for those whom we claim to be honoring.

    I saw a guy I went to high school with a couple years ago; he had done a tour of duty in Iraq. He told me he never says “support our troops,” because “some of those guys still owe me money.” There’s wisdom in that.”
  • Josh Barro on Twitter yesterday backed up Chris Hayes with a few thoughts of his own. I wish he would have blogged about this, but one of the things I found insightful is his belief that conscripted people are actually more heroic. Military service is one of many dangerous occupations, and there’s nothing heroic about choosing that particular risk profile. But the larger point that I think is dangerous for our society is this:
  • Gene Healy links to a great, older, Atlantic interview with the late Paul Fussell, who even found skepticism in the least morally objectionable war of them all: WWII. Fussell found the war absolutely necessary, but was still uncomfortable at the black and white thinking that followed it. Among his criticisms was the sad truth that war (especially Vietnam) was a kind of eugenics itself, casting the least privileged and educated in society into the infantry to be slaughtered. Healy’s tweet captures the best sentence from the interview:”I like the US so much that I wish it would grow up.”
  • And of course I would be doing no justice to my own evolution and to the body of thought on the terror of war without linking to Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. Hear Hedges discuss it here.

These are not fringe people. Hayes is an editor at The Nation. Healy works at the Cato Institute, Barro the Manhattan Institute and blogs for Forbes. Hedges was a war correspondent who was so in love with war it scarred him for life. DeBoer is the only true leftist of them all. Together these voices straddle the ideological continuum.

David Boaz notes today that this is the first election in modern American history where neither candidate has a background, by any stretch, of military service. He says this should make them more humble about sending other people to die for America. Allow me to interject my opinion that it has not and it will not, in part because of rituals like Memorial Day that enforce and perpetuate an idea: that it’s right and just to do what we’ve been doing, even when it’s not.

There’s a lot of moral canting today, about the acts of valor and heroism that have kept America safe and secured freedom. There are many statements about the honor of those who have and who do serve in the military that are as broad as they are shallow. Today is a day when we reaffirm and celebrate the national myth of our own greatness and righteousness.

I could counter with a lot of canting of my own, and I have to an extent. I don’t want to do much more. I could go on and on about how all war has done for us these past ten years is ensured the deterioration of our domestic rights and liberties and perpetuated violations of human rights and basic dignity abroad — at the best of times. At the worst, it has prematurely cut off life completely for tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocents. Some of them were even American citizens, albeit estranged.

I don’t think any of the claims made on days like today stand serious scrutiny. And if war isn’t serious, then what is?

I don’t reject the idea of heroism, or of valor. I simply stand with many who believe that our culture is the victim of an infliction that has made it linguistically impossible to equate a posture of humility and humanity with a just foreign policy. It is a linguistic perversion: heroism doesn’t mean heroism, it means mere participation in a particular project. It is gutted of its distinguishing feature: the supererogatory. Freedom means the ability to continue an unchecked posture of aggression. Language is powerful — like war, it is a force that gives meaning. Except it is the foundational force that makes meaning possible.

People often object that I’m only being dour and contrarian on days like today.

I disagree.


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