In Memorium–For the Old Republic

by , May 30, 2000
Memorial Day in America, a day in which we honor the perished heroes (and heroines) fallen in past wars, has really gone out of fashion. There was a time, before the end of the cold war, that Memorial Day parades were major affairs all across America: I remember in the early sixties going to the parade each and every year: it was a family event eagerly looked forward to – the marching bands, the solemn crowds, the proud veterans stepping smartly along the main street of the small town in upstate New York in which I grew up. The Vietnam war changed all that, perhaps irrevocably, at least for my generation. Those days of innocence, in which all of America’s wars were seen as “good” wars, battles for justice and what we called (without unembarrassment and in capital letters) The American Way, are forever gone. And in its place – what? HALCYON DAYS

Now, I don’t believe that any of the wars fought by the US but three were just wars: only the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the southern war for independence could be justified on any grounds I would care to stand on. However, in those halcyon days of our republican past, before the temptations of empire had a chance to corrupt the American spirit, there was at least some basis, however tenuous and ill-founded, for believing in the official propaganda. While it is generally recognized that World War I was an avoidable war, a great tragedy that did not have to happen, the Germans and their allies did not make it easier to oppose the war within the US – unrestricted submarine warfare was not exactly good public relations, not to mention the infamous Zimmermann telegram – in which the Germans promised Mexico the American southwest if they would join the alliance against the US. World War II was a similar case, only more so, with the horrific Hitler a persona that the War Party has successfully reincarnated several times over since then. The cold war was a similar exercise in ideological polarities, with the American Way starkly counterposed to the Soviet Way in a worldwide struggle for hearts and minds. In all three conflicts, our enemies were depicted as Satan with a sword, a mighty adversary, magnificent in the enormity of his evil. But who and what are our enemies today? Who are the bad guys in our ongoing global crusade to set the world right?

WHAT KIND OF ENEMIES?

A tinpot Mideast dictator whose people we have reduced to a starving mass of increasingly diseased yet stubbornly defiant “enemies”; a Balkan bully whose popularity in his own country is due entirely to the efforts of the US and its European allies to topple him; the decrepit leadership of the last Communist Party of any consequence left on earth, a gerontocracy so brittle that even a crackpot religious cult nuttier than Scientology could threaten its power; and, finally, beaten Russia, shorn of its empire, shrunken to a size smaller than in the days of Peter the Great, and relegated to the economic status of a Fourth World country. These are our “enemies,” ostensibly the reason we spend more than all the other countries of the world combined for “defense” – not Satan with a sword, but the ill-equipped and half-starved slave-troops of Saddam Hussein in full retreat as they are mowed down by General Barry McCaffrey – now honored as our “drug czar.” Not the panzer divisions of the German Army, but the very people they fought – the Serbs, who are now the last resistance to German domination left Europe. Only this time, the Yanks are not coming to liberate them, but to assist (and even lead the way) in their subjugation.

BILLY NORIEGA

As we go about the world, cleaning up other peoples’ messes and generally acting as a kind of combination nanny-wetnurse-social worker-cop, our enemies are less magnificent: they are merely ordinary criminals, not too much unlike our own criminal political class: corrupt, but not evil in the Hitlerian sense. Bill Clinton is no less corrupt than, say, Manuel Noriega, and so the transition from republic to empire is marked by a difference in the tone and solemnity of our Memorial Day rituals. With the generation that fought in World War II dying out, the veterans of today are remembered in a different way: the crusades of yesteryear have given way to the imperial adventures of America’s emperors. As long as America was a republic, it was possible to write unambivalent paeans to the not only to the heroism of America’s fallen soldiers, but to the justness of their cause. These deaths, one could reasonably argue, were tragic but necessary. But in the imperial America of today, in which wars of conquest are dressed up in the threadbare regalia of “humanitarianism” -remember, “it’s for the children” – one could say no such thing. In the era of empire, as America goes ranging over the world looking to impose its will on every continent, all casualties are senseless sacrifices on the altar of the war god, senseless and criminal.

THE END OF HEROISM

“We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire,” warned Garet Garrett in his classic 1953 essay “Rise of Empire,” and therein lies the reason why Memorial Day in the year 2000 seems, somehow, different than the Memorial Days of my youth. The soldiers of yesteryear fell in defense of our old Republic; now, they die for the Empire, for the greater of its rulers and so that their purses might be further fattened. There is no heroism in that, only unalloyed tragedy – and waste.

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