Here we are again, a three-day weekend at hand, little flags waving in cemeteries country-wide to remind us why we get that extra day to sleep in. I’ve read a few articles recently calling Memorial Day a time to relax, usually accompanied by a humdinger of a recipe to break up the hamburger/hot dog monotony at that first picnic of the season. We’ll nod our heads along with a bit of martial music this weekend, salute the last few members of the Greatest Generation while secretly wondering if it really was, and gratefully take that extra day of rest, along with a slice of watermelon.
Here in the Pea Patch, where the VFW still gathers the remaining vets from WWII and Vietnam to dress the graveyards, stores have filled an aisle or two with red-white-and-blue faux-bouquets to honor our beloved dead. Little plots of headstones — dotting the country landscape like convenience stores do urban neighborhoods — present a riot of color from flowers, real and silk. They’re hung with bird-feeders, alive with whirligigs and Mylar balloons, streamers dancing in the air. And so, once again, with eyes wide shut, we count the cost of our addiction to war without contemplating the cause.
As with many of our holidays, not everyone knows or cares why they’re being celebrated, which seems a grievous complaint against our educational system, not to mention our self-absorbed culture. Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, began as a day to honor the Civil War dead only three years after that war ended. It was deemed a federal holiday in Washington, D.C. in 1888 and declared a national holiday by Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1971. On this holiday each year, a wreath is laid at the tomb of the unknown soldier and a speech is given commemorating the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their country, because — well — because freedom isn’t free, doncha know.
Let me be candid: I get really tired of hearing that catch-phrase, celebrated in country music, recruiting videos and anything starring Carlos “Chuck” Norris. Adults know that every choice exacts a cost of some kind, and SHOULD know that those who defend freedom don’t always wear a military uniform. Sometimes they stand up to tear gas and riot gear, sometimes they tell the truth even when the information is unwelcomed.
Some defenders of liberty even have to give their up their own freedom, spending time in prison or in Russia or in an obscure foreign embassy. As became clear early in this new century, one man’s patriot is another’s traitor, especially as the First Amendment becomes less relevant with each trade-off for national security. At this rate, it won’t be worth the velum it’s inscribed on by mid-century.
As a stark reminder of Dubby’s little venture into “spreading freedom,” the Patriot Act is back on our plates, for renewal or revision. I suspect many readers would rather we revise this rogue legislation, which has cost us reputation, treasure, privacy, Constitutional rights and the high road in ethical behavior, all in the name of safety. The bill is set to expire, with an improbable non-partisan mix of legislators questioning the validity of the sweeping surveillance it put in place under Bush and Company. McConnell has threatened to keep members from leaving town if they don’t pass some kind of extension before Friday evening as the legislation will expire by the time Congress retuns from break. As I write, the situation remains up in the air.
An attempt to remedy the worst of the Patriot Act, the USA Freedom Act was introduced to Congress late in 2013, as the nation became aware of the vast NSA surveillance. It included specifc limits on data collection. It was re-worked, backed by the Obama administration, and brought up again this year, with hopes that a bi-partisan vote would bring it to the floor for discussion. It has passed the House but seems to have little traction in the Senate. On this issue, interestingly, Boehner and McConnell are at odds. [UPDATE: The Freedom Act was voted down near midnight on Friday, putting the whole of the legislation in jeopardy. McConnell has scheduled another vote early on May 31 in an attempt to salvage it.]
Like a bout of PTSD, all that Patriot Act business has renewed our memories of ‘Shock ‘n Awe.’ And thanks to the fire and brimstone pushed by radical Islam in the Iraqi provinces — and an unexpected Bushism of the Jebby kind — the longest war in our history is being re-thought. When asked by a reporter whether, if he’d known then what he knows now, he would have gone to war with Saddam, Dubby’s little brother said, yeah, sure. This has brought BushWar II back to the forefront, and the Bush Family Business into focus. We used to think of Jeb as the smart Bush, the one Poppy burst into tears over when discussing the state of the nation. Little did we know. (I suspect we’ll have the same kind of vertigo next year around this time if we think of him as the moderate Republican candidate, by the way — he certainly is not!)
Almost immediately, Jeb began to back up, saying he misunderstood the question. It took several days and several different answers before he finally settled on, “No.” Jeb’s political DNA no doubt cowered at the possibility of insulting the troops, dissing his brother or annoying the base, especially when others like Cruz and Huck and Rubio have the evangelicals in their camp. It should come as no surprise — more like a dire warning with flashing lights and sirens — that both Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, the neo-cons who carefully orchestrated Dub’s run-up to war (entirely responsible for Cheney’s insistence that we would be met with flowers in Baghdad), are now consultants to Jeb’s campaign (not to mention most of George’s other advisors. Again, NOT a moderate, just a bit more housebroken than the rest of the candidates on the right).
The war itself has now come under new scrutiny, not that the majority of Americans (left, right and center) don’t consider it a failed military experiment that, essentially, destabilized the Middle East. Jonathan Chait, hardly a tree-hugging minion, wrote a piece for New York Magazine titled “Was the Iraq War a Crime or a Mistake? Yes.” In it, he not only stapled the error of the Iraq misadventure to the page of epic failures in our history books, but warned that thinking of it as an intelligence failure rather than opportunistic adventurism is a slippery slope. Will Pitt used more candid terms when he described it as ” … a deliberate smash-and-grab robbery, writ large.”
Yes, Jeb’s baggage is hard to bear, and heavier by the day. Earlier in the week, a young lady corned Bubba and told him his brother was responsible for creating ISIS. Clearly, given that the hasty deBathification of Iraq let loose a group of tough combat veterans who would better have been charmed than insulted, she has a point. Add that the news from Iraq is grim.
While ISIS has its weaknesses (like the Pubs, neither interest nor ability to govern stands first and foremost), it now counts Ramadi — capital of the Anbar province — as the newest addition to its ‘caliphate,’ putting Baghdad in the cross-hairs. The Pentagon, State Department and Administration have downplayed the loss, calling it a temporary setback and insisting that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will take back the territory eventually, with our help of course. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that Mosul hit the skids in a similar fashion, falling into the radical’s hands. Its liberation is now considered out of the question.
In Iraq, the Achilles Heel within the ISF is the same as it’s always been: warfare in the Middle East is religious, dividing loyalties, and the political culture has only shape-shifted to the Western model on the surface. It has been, and is still, thick with corruption and tribal nepotism, religious bias simmering just under the skin. When the ISF cut and ran, leaving Ramadi to the conquerors, it was not the first time such an exodus had occurred. Had we understood that first sentence fully in 2003, the region might still be stable, the war might never have been fought and millions — including 4,000 dead Americans, with hundreds of thousands wounded and maimed — would have been spared the Bush Doctrine.
As it is, there is no good win in Iraq now that the genie is out of the bottle, and most of us know that — not even the military industrial complex, still busy making money hand over fist, is bothering to hide its cynicism. In the end, this is Iraq’s war to lose, with Iran picking up the pieces. It’s inevitable.
But what of America and her dependence on big oil, on corporate dominance, on militarism and resources not her own? What of America with her brash romance with drama and tragedy and horror, fighting an internal battle with the distancing techniques we’ve put in place to keep sorrow and outrage at bay? What of the children raised on violence and surrounded by gunplay? Is the cerebral cooling of the blood that we’ve embraced a way to diminish future war or simply to ignore its consequences?
When Ramadi fell, leading to the expected brutal purge of unbelievers and threat to historical treasures, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, keeping a low profile, downplayed its loss as “not symbolic in any way.” This infuriated at least one mother, that of Marc Lee, a Navy Seal who died in Ramadi in 2006. She wrote an angry, impassioned letter to Dempsey, which read in part:
You, sir, owe an apology to the families whose loved ones’ blood was shed in Ramadi. Ramadi matters to us and is very symbolic to us. You need to apologize to our troops whose bodies were blown to pieces from IEDs and bullet holes leaving parts and pieces behind, Ramadi matters to them…
You and this administration have minimized that Ramadi could fall, now you are minimizing that it is falling, but you, Sir, WILL NOT minimize the sacrifice my son Marc Lee made or any of our brave warriors!
On Memorial Day, she — and others like her — will not just visit gravesites to deliver faux-flowers; they will march and growl and call for more blood in an effort to soothe their pain. Simple grief and contemplation are much too cerebral for such a day. The wounds are too fresh, the senses too raw among the warrior class. This is the same emotion that keeps the death penalty alive, the same outrage that finds no harm in killing ‘thugs’ in Ferguson. It’s our most primitive response: desire for vengeance.
While this mother has every right to throw her full support behind the “us or them” philosophy that got us all into this jam, perpetuating the attack/defend consciousness that simply MUST come to an end if we are to survive, I worry about how very intellectual all this has become in the chattering class. How cut and dried death is to those of us who witness, but do not fight. How easy it seems to fight a war now, not with boots on the ground, but with drones in the sky sent from a continent away.
This kind of cool analysis simply MUST NOT BE the energy signal of a new Aquarian Age, a technological disconnect from the shadow side of our grief, our anger, our pain. Water finds the path of least resistance, and so does human consciousness. We must not allow brutality and churlishness — cultural, political, military — to take us down this dark path when we have intent to lift ourselves up into the Light. There is too much at stake to devolve into a country intent on vengeance, looping endlessly in wars that have numbed our senses and turned our hearts cold.
On this Memorial Day, remember someone who fought for their country. Honor them, alive or dead. I am not ‘military minded,’ as it were, and I cannot but view the bright untested patriotism of the young who enlist, fight and die as expendable pawns for our geopolitical adventurism as tragic reality, but — like those who tithe to dishonest religious organizations, for instance — the dishonor is not theirs, but belongs squarely on the shoulders of those who use them so badly.
For many, the military is a stepping stone out of poor circumstances, a place to experience pride, camaraderie and discipline. If we have not taught them a higher octave of honor than nationalism, it is not their fault, it is ours. And so, for them — many of whom I know — I will honor those who serve. On the last day of this long weekend, then, I will fly the American flag in honor of the dreams of her children and their higher aspirations. I will fly the Stars and Bars in honor of what this nation can be, and I pray will be, one fine day to come.