We recognize that Memorial Day is primarily a holiday to commemorate those who have died fighting to defend their country. It grew out of the complex and sensitive process of how Americans, North and South, would figure out how to recognize the sacrifices of soldiers on the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. And Americans have given their lives in many causes–some that were just, some that were, alas, transparently fraudulent–but almost always with dignity and courage, often at extraordinary cost to themselves and their families. Frankly, most of us today are not as brave as those who have risked life and limb in uniform, remaining content to let others fight our wars for us.
At ToM we have written extensively on the history of the military and military communities–not strategies and tactics, but the experiences of African-American soldiers pushing for equality within the ranks, of military spouses struggling to cope with the hardships of deployment overseas or the inadequacy of Army pay and housing at home. All these stories, on the battlefield and the homefront, deserve to be told and remembered.
However, Memorial Day should also be a time to remember those who put our fellow citizens–not to mention the helpless bystanders in farms and cities and villages across the world–in the way of grievous harm. Sometimes those decisions were not taken lightly (FDR and Lincoln come to mind), but too often they were. Today should be a day of fond remembrance and heartfelt appreciation for those who lost their lives much too soon. But it should also be a time to remember the lies that often caused those deaths, and in the process wrecked whole families, communities, cities, even countries. I’m looking at you, LBJ.
And you, W. We must never, ever forget that, however bad President Barack Obama’s policies on drones and deportations might have been–and perhaps however bad the military conflicts that the current occupant of the White House will soon embroil us in–that the catastrophic state of the Middle East today owes principally to the craven, capricious acts of one man: George W. Bush. He and his cronies took advantage of a public that was frightened after the terrorist attacks of September 11th and a media that was too pliant and unprincipled to do its job. In what might be history’s worst and most audacious non-sequitur, they switched the subject to a country (Iraq) that had not aggressed against us and made claims about a threat (weapons of mass destruction) for which there was not and, in fact, never could be any evidence. And they showed fabricated evidence to the United Nations, indeed to the entire world, going to bed at night with a conscience that evidently felt as a clean as a freshly ironed sheet.
It is hard to tell what the damage has been, or what measure could possibly contain it. There are different counts. The organization Iraq Body Count puts it at 175,168 – 195,800 “documented civilian deaths from violence” and 268,000 “total violent deaths including combatants.” A survey by the distinguished medical journal Lancet estimated 601,027 deaths just between 2003 and 2006. But where do you draw the lines–does the counting stop when the US (sort of) withdrew in 2011, or does it also include the carnage caused by the spillover of violence into Syria by the Islamic State, which absolutely would not exist if the US had not invaded? Does it include those disappeared as well as those clearly documented as dead? The people murdered by either Shiite or Sunni death squads?
And then there are the Americans: 4,491 between 2003 and 2014. Most of them would be alive today if not for the venality and casual disregard for human life of a few rich and powerful men. And there will be more losses to come, as the ramifications of a fateful decision in 2003 continue to be felt by women and children buried alive in Iraq, soldiers tortured, cities shattered by bombs, and the Americans who may serve and die trying once again to achieve the objectives of great thinkers back in Washington. It was the Archduke Ferdinand moment of the early twenty-first century, and it is not over yet. That is why we must both remember and not forget.