Memorial Day has always been troublesome for me. While it is good and right that we honor those who have given their lives for our country, we must also reconcile the inherent contradiction of waging war to make peace. We must honor our warriors without celebrating our wars. We must find a way to accommodate both our better and lesser selves. We must indulge our heritage at the same time we question it, so that we might forge a new legacy.
The United States is a nation born from war during the American Revolution and waged its most deadly war against itself in the Civil War. Victory in World War II made the U.S. a superpower. It is natural then that war has been encoded on the DNA of American identity. There is no nation on earth that wages war more effectively than the United States; but should this be a source of pride, or evidence of a national character flaw? While many argue passionately and forcefully that a strong military makes a strong nation, and that our fathers fought so we wouldn’t have to, the last fifty years or so reveal a different picture, raising important questions of morality and intelligence.
There is no question that taming the Kaiser, defeating Hitler, and victory over Hirohito’s Japan were great accomplishments. The conquests of madmen must be put down. However, since World War II, our wars have too often been waged on faulty theories of dominoes and contagions (Vietnam), and politicized intelligence (Iraq). Waging war has become, for too many, preferable to waging peace. It has become too easy to start, and nearly impossible to finish. When Osama bin Laden’s small band of terrorists attacked us on 9/11 the immediate reflex was war. And, while there was no enemy state to wage war against, we quickly adapted to our predisposition by calling it a “War on Terror.”
We are now realizing how difficult it is to wage war against a tactic. Our profound differential power advantage—using more troops with bigger and better weapons—has proven surprisingly ineffective against organic and asymmetric networks whose greatest weapon is virulent mysticism. I wonder how much better off we might be today if the fallen towers in New York had been cordoned off as a crime scene, instead of becoming a springboard to war seven thousand miles away? I wonder if we might object more loudly if we reinstated a compulsory draft? I wonder if we shouldn’t require citizens to spend one month each year in service to their country? I wonder if we should endure more than wasted time and minor indignities at TSA checkpoints to awaken our better selves? Might we get smarter faster?
The War in Afghanistan is now officially America’s longest war. Our men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve both our support and our courage. In this case, the courage to bring them home. It is time to rethink what we are doing, how we are doing it, and, most importantly, why? What do we possibly think we can accomplish by sacrificing more blood and treasure? Are villagers in the Swat Valley really a threat to our homeland? Do we really believe bin Laden will invade America or conquer our allies? When will we stand up, summon our common sense, and declare this war absurd?
On this Memorial Day, as we honor those who died in service to our country, let us also refrain from romanticizing the wars America has fought. Let us never forget the horror that war visits upon those who fall in its path. War produces many more victims than heroes and paves an uncertain road to stability and prosperity, let alone peace. Both the victor and the vanquished are seldom better off. I look forward to the day when we can drive by a cemetery on the last Monday in May and see fewer flags and fewer tears. I hope that someday we not only honor the fallen, but we also celebrate our new differential advantage: our capacity to wage peace.