It’s Memorial Day weekend and time for my annual Harlan Miller column, Mr. Miller, as he was called, was a local farm boy, very shy, extremely bright, mostly self educated, who enlisted at the onset of WWII. Seriously wounded in North Africa, it took years of hospitalization before he could enter what would become normal life for him. Never able to work a regular job again, he lived as an impoverished recluse, the church his only family, his tithes a few coins each Sunday. The congregation was the executor of his will. The veteran’s flag given to the next of kin is in the church’s keeping, a treasured icon.
Memorial Day honors those who died in service to their country. For some, death came instantly, for some it came in installments, terrifying, brutal, dribbled out over a lifetime. Mr. Miller was one of those.
Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit song “War” begins “War, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Yet we continue glorifying the heroics of battle, praising those who died in a valiant cause when living is what they most wanted. Entertainment empires are built on the glorification of war, on how many enemies can be killed in how many ways, on brave heroics and tragic deaths. It’s an old story. Ancient Greeks measured a man’s worth by his performance in war. To die in battle was the epitome of worthiness. The Western world knows about it because their written record has entered the literary canon, but it’s a theme played out and recorded in every culture, with each age having its own George S. Patton leading the way. We are not unique in the history of tribes and peoples. We may, however, be unique in the realm of living creatures, for we seem to be the only ones who take pride and pleasure in the massive slaughter of our own kind.
During these WWII anniversary years, we’ve attached romantic idealism to the sacrifices made by The Greatest Generation who achieved victory in the “good war” that saved the world. There is substantial truth in it. It’s worth remembering with honor and not to be demeaned in any way.
Anachronistically, we’ve continued to prepare for the next WWII as if wars of conquest engaging massive armies faced off against each other were imminent probabilities. They aren’t – no matter how the Star Wars saga claims otherwise. Nevertheless, we parade our armies, navies and air forces back and forth across the world stage as if they were. Why? Because, unlike the armed conflicts of today, they could be good, winnable and honorable wars. We maintain nuclear missiles to threaten retaliation if another nation fires at us, without giving much thought to the obliteration of civilization it would unleash. Why? Because it can be made to sell well at election time. And what else? Because it creates jobs and profits for powerful defense industries that underwrite the economies of whole regions.
There are real examples of war like violence all over the globe. Millions die. Millions live out Harlan Miller lives – and worse. Defense industries make millions. And what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.
National defense is needed, let’s understand that. It’s needed to de-escalate violence, deter violence, and help create conditions where large scale war like violence is no longer tolerated by the global community. It’s possible that some rogue actor will get hold of a nuclear device and set it off to make a bigger bang than Timothy McVey’s or the Saudi led terrorists of 9/11. We need to defend against such things, but hundreds of missiles are not the defense we need. Times change and needs change.
Savvy nations intent on conquest have smarter, less violent ways to go about it. Commanding the ebb and flow of information technologies, directing the distribution of financial resources, and dominating markets in goods and services are far more effective. They can work without doing too much damage to desires for national autonomy and cultural pride. Even savvier nations surrender their lust for conquest in favor of passion for the well being of their own people. Less savvy nations continue to plow ahead in preparation for 1955. Of late we have become among the less savvy.
This Memorial Day we honor those who died in service to our country, both those who were killed at once, and those who died piece by piece. It is our duty, not a sacred one, but our duty nonetheless. We owe it to them whether they earned it or not. Alongside flowers and flags, perhaps we might also move toward a new way of being a nation that doesn’t glorify killing.