Arlington National Cemetery could almost be my backyard. I live right down the road from the new Air Force Memorial and not far from the Iwo Jima Memorial. The other memorials to those who served and fought in our nation’s wars the Navy Memorial (interestingly, the U.S. Army is the only military service without a memorial in Washington, D.C.), World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, and Vietnam War Memorial are all just a stone’s throw away. And if I needed to be reminded what last weekend was, there was the roar of Rolling Thunder as several hundred thousand motorcyclists came to Washington, D.C., to observe Memorial Day.
Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) was first observed on May 30, 1868, as a day of remembrance for those who died in the Civil War. Today, it is a national three-day weekend holiday to honor all of those who have given their lives in military service to the nation. The "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution "designates 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day each year as the National Moment of Remembrance, in honor of the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace." And according to a subsequent memorandum issued by the Clinton White House, "Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values. While we should honor these heroes every day for the profound contribution they have made to securing our Nation’s freedom, we should honor them especially on Memorial Day."
It is worth noting the qualifiers "who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace" and "who died while defending our Nation and its values," as well as the assertion that those who died did so "securing our Nation’s freedom." We should certainly remember and honor all those who died in military service on Memorial Day. But we should also not blithely assume that all those deaths were to defend the country or our freedom.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has employed significant military force on nine occasions: the 1989 invasion of Panama to arrest of Manuel Noriega (27,000 U.S. troops), Operation Desert Storm to force Iraq out of Kuwait (more than 500,00 U.S. military personnel), the ill-fated "Blackhawk Down" mission in Somalia (25,000 U.S. troops), Haiti in 1994 to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and to head off a potential wave of Haitian refugees, air strikes in Bosnia in 1995, missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (which became the subject of partisan criticism as a distraction from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment hearings), more air strikes in Kosovo in 1999 against Hitler du jour Slobodan Milosevic, and the two ongoing U.S. military operations: Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Thankfully, none of these military operations resulted in mass casualties on the scale of World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War but virtually all military operations, however large or small, result in casualties.)
However, only Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was unambiguously in response to a direct threat to the United States. Thus, the reality is that the profligate use of military force (and the inevitable deaths that result from such action) has little to do with defending the country, our freedom, or our way of life which should be the only reasons to engage the military. Unfortunately and all too often, so-called U.S. interests (which are broad and far reaching, and generally political rather than vital) are used as a reason to put U.S. troops in harm’s way.
Of course, these actions are inevitably dressed up by policymakers to make them seem vital. For example, Operation Urgent Fury in 1984 was largely about rescuing American students in Grenada to prevent them from becoming would-be hostages in the wake of a Marxist, pro-Castro takeover of the Grenadan government (the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was still relatively fresh in the minds of policymakers and the American public) which can hardly be characterized as a dire threat to U.S. national security. But the mission was touted as important to restore democracy to Grenada, which was deemed as an island of strategic importance to the United States (and whether the students were truly at risk is debatable). Yet none other than British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (a staunch supporter of the Reagan administration and hardly someone who could be called wimpy) wrote to President Reagan after the invasion: "This action will be seen as intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime." In not so many words, Thatcher said the invasion was unnecessary.
Ultimately, the best way we can remember and honor those who have died as the result of U.S. policymakers’ decisions to use military force is to continue to question whether such decisions are absolutely necessary. Sadly, we did not do this enough in the run-up to the Iraq War, which has now claimed more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers’ lives. So what better way to observe Memorial Day than to ensure that more U.S. soldiers don’t die in needless military interventions?