In his weekly address last Saturday, George III President Barack Obama brought up an interesting anecdote regarding the origins of Memorial Day. Naturally, the Obama-loving Daily Kos was all over it yet in their hosannas they seemed to be as irony-challenged as the President himself.
Toward the close of his address, the President mentioned a group of southern women in 1866 who'd arrived at a cemetery to pay their respects to fallen Confederate soldiers of the Civil War. Then they noticed the graves of Union soldiers who'd also fallen but whose graves were being ignored.
What Obama didn't mention was how those graves got there to begin with. Memorial Day didn't start with the formation of a Memorial Day Commission a few years later but days after Appomattox with a group of freed slaves in South Carolina, the state in which the war began. These men, the Freedmen, knowing the bodies of Union soldiers who'd fallen in Confederate territory were unceremoniously buried in mass graves, took the extraordinary step of disinterring those bodies one at a time and giving each man his own grave so he could be honored properly.
African Americans had to have their own Memorial Day because no one thought to honor them for their own brave service to their country and they started the tradition with honoring the Union soldiers who'd died to help liberate them.
But that's not why I'm taking the President to task.
In his four minute-long address to the nation last Saturday, Obama neatly extracted a page from the Bush/Cheney playbook, one revised and perfected by two draft-dodging scumbags, and conflated WWI and Korea with the defense of our freedoms. WWI had nothing whatsoever to do with defending our freedoms. World War One was a war between European empires.
As with Pearl Harbor and World War Two, which actually did threaten American freedom in a nominal way, President Wilson hurled us into WWI largely as a response to the sinking of the Lusitania and the deaths of many Americans in 1915. Yet even then, it still took us nearly two years to enter the war effort. In our brief involvement with the Great War, over 100,000 men perished.
Yet we could have sat out that war without suffering any fallout here at home.
Korea was all about the stopping of Communist expansion in the 38th parallel at the height of the Cold War. It was the first of the two great "police actions" (the other being Vietnam) that was waged to halt the spread of Communist aggression. And the Korean "War" was never officially ended. To this day, half a century later, we still have 5000 troops in South Korea that are rotated out every 12 months.
Neither WWI and Korea had anything to do with ensuring our freedoms. So should we honor those men and women who had fallen in those two conflicts? Absolutely but let's do so in the proper context and not legitimize the circumstances of their sacrifices by lumping them into "legitimate" wars like the Revolutionary, Civil and second World Wars.
And let's not glorify war, either. Never was there a single word or syllable uttered by the president, who also never served his nation's military, expressing regret or any actual sorrow that these men and women died in uniform for their country at the whims of European madmen, Communist dictators and our own military industrial complex that Obama is even now enriching at an even greater clip than we ever saw under Bush and Cheney.
On May 30, 2010, at 10:06 a.m, the direct cost of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan will hit $1 trillion. And in a few weeks, the House of Representatives will be asked to vote for $33 billion of additional "emergency" supplemental spending to continue the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be the pretense of debate - speeches on the floor of both chambers, stern requests for timetables or metrics or benchmarks - but this war money will get tossed in the wood chipper without difficulty, requested by a President who ran on an anti-war platform. Passing this legislation will mark the breaking of another promise to America, the promise that all war spending would be done through the regular budget process. Not through an off-budget swipe of our Chinese credit card.
The war money could be used for schools, bridges, or paying everyone's mortgage payments for a whole year. It could be used to end federal income taxes on every American's first $35,000 of income, as my bill, the War Is Making You Poor Act, does. It could be used to close the yawning deficit, supply health care to the unemployed, or for any other human and humane purpose.
Instead, it will be used for war. Because, as Orwell predicted in 1984, we've reached the point where everyone thinks that we've always been at war with Eastasia. Why?
Not because Al Qaeda was sheltered in Iraq. It wasn't. And not because Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan. It isn't. Bush could never explain why we went to war in Iraq, and Obama can't explain why we are 'escalating' in Afghanistan.
So, why? Why spend $1 trillion on a long, bloody nine-year campaign with no justifiable purpose?
Remember 9/11, the day that changed everything? That was almost a decade ago. Bush's response was to mire us in two bloody wars, wars in which we are still stuck today. Why?
I can't answer that question. But I do have an alternative vision of how the last 10 years could have played out.
Imagine if we had decided after 9/11 to wean ourselves off oil and other carbon-based fuels. We'd be almost ten years into that project by now.
Imagine if George W. Bush had somehow been able to summon the moral strength of Mahatma Gandhi, Helen Keller, or Martin Luther King Jr, and committed the American people to the pursuit of a common goal of a transformed society, a society which meets our own human needs rather than declaring "war" on an emotion, or, as John Quincy Adams put it, going "abroad, in search of monsters to destroy".
Imagine that we chose not to enslave ourselves to a massive military state whose stated goal is "stability" in countries that never have been "stable", and never will be.
"Imagine all the people, living life in peace."
It's kind of ironic that our new President, one who ran on and won the presidency on a vaguely visionary platform, can't imagine the same: A world in which we don't have to fold Memorial Day observations into an extended weekend more characterized by a day off from work, cookouts, beer and the official opening of local beaches.
There will always be war and there will always be war dead, with men and women fated to die young before raising families or realizing dreams and ambitions. That is a sad fact of life. But all too many of us, our own president included, completely lack enough visionary courage or desire to even try to imagine a world without needless, economy-crippling wars that kill uniformed and civilian men, women and more children than we also have the courage to contemplate.
Because, after all, great realities all too often begin with humble dreams.
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