Author’s note: I had actually started to write a Memorial Day column when I looked up this piece from 2012, which says almost precisely what I intended to say. When you’ve been writing a column covering foreign affairs for over twenty years, as I have, repetition is inevitable, but what follows captures my view of this holiday and its contemporary meaning so completely that I decided to give it to my readers, rather than attempt to replicate the same thoughts albeit in different words.
We might as well get rid of Memorial Day, for all the good it does us. Originally “Decoration Day,” the last Monday in May has been the designated time for us to remember the war dead and honor their sacrifice – while, perhaps, taking in the lessons of the many conflicts that have marked our history as a free nation. In line with the modern trend of universal trivialization, however, the holiday has been paganized to mark the beginning of summer, when we get out the barbecue grill and have the neighbors over for hamburgers and beer. As for contemplating the meaning of the day in the context of our current and recent wars, that is left to those few pundits who pay attention to foreign policy issues, or else to writers of paeans to the “Greatest Generation” – World War II being the only modern war our panegyrists deign to recall, since it is relatively untouched by the ravages of historical revisionism.
Indeed, as far as our wars are concerned, the very concept of historical memory has vanished from the post-9/11 world. It seems the earth was born anew on September 11, 2001, and only ragged remnants of our mystified past – mostly from World War II and the Civil War – survived the purge. In the new version our victories are exaggerated and glorified, while our defeats – e.g. Vietnam, Korea, our nasty little covert wars in Central and South America – are not even mentioned, let alone considered in depth.
The abolition of historical memory is one of the worst aspects of modernity: it is certainly the most depressing. For the modern man, it’s an effort to recall what happened last week, never mind the last century. The news cycle spins madly and ever-faster, and the result is that we are lost in the blur of Now: for all intents and purposes, we are a people without a history, who recall past events – if we remember them at all – as one would summon a vague and confusing dream.
The Vietnam war was the last major conflict that caused us to reconsider our foreign policy of global intervention for any length of time, and at this point it has been thoroughly buried in the public imagination. For a brief moment the so-called Vietnam Syndrome was bemoaned by the political class, who complained it prevented them from indulging their desire to intervene anywhere and everywhere at will. And the memory of that futile crusade did have a restraining effect for some years – until the passage of time, the collapse of Communism, and – finally – the 9/11 terrorist attacks wiped the slate clean.
Never mind remembering the lessons of Vietnam – we’ve repressed even the bitter lessons of our most recent “past” conflict, the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. No sooner had we fallen into that quicksand then we promptly forgot who pushed us in – which is why the authors of that disaster continue to function as foreign policy mavens and political seers whose reputations are considered sterling. The neocon clique, and any number of politicians of both parties who fulsomely supported that war, today act as if they have nothing to apologize for, and nothing to regret: far from being repentant, they are, if anything, proud of their advocacy, secure in the knowledge that “everyone” believed Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” and smug in the certainty that no one of any consequence has anything to gain by raising the subject.
Who really remembers the Kosovo war – that is, the war as it unfolded? We were told as many as a hundred-thousand Kosovars were being exterminated, and yet at war’s end we found a few thousand – Serbs and Kosovars in equal number – had been murdered. The trial of a man named Ratko has the War Party mythologizing that conflict, as is its wont: unfortunately for them, the kangaroo court known as the Hague Tribunal has been adjourned in that case, perhaps permanently, on account of the prosecution’s withholding of evidence. That’s par for the course: withholding evidence, suppressing truth, editing the historical record has been their modus operandi from the start, but apparently the judges had an attack of conscience in this case, and it looks like the NATO-crats won’t get their show trial after all.
Who really remembers the Korean war? Not even writers whose major interest is foreign policy are capable of recalling it as it was actually fought. Rachel Maddow, MSNBC anchor and liberal voice, recently wrote an entire book based on the premise that Republicans are primarily responsible for “the unmooring of American military power” from either constitutional or political restraints – forgetting (if she ever knew) it was Harry Truman who set that precedent when he sent US troops to Korea without bothering to ask Congress first.
I don’t blame Rachel: history is a forgotten discipline, practiced selectively when it is invoked at all. These days it is best not to contemplate the past too much, or too intently, because comparison with the present is bound to depress us. An ice-cream cone bought for a Memorial Day picnic used to cost a dime: today nothing costs a dime, not even alms to a beggar.
To recall past wars is to recall their folly, and no one wants to be reminded of their moral and cognitive shortcomings: so we resort to mythology that valorizes the victors and paints the defeated in various shades of black – and when that’s not possible, amnesia is our last resort.
So I say: let’s rid ourselves of Memorial Day, and at least be honest with ourselves in this one instance. Let’s acknowledge we’d much rather forget our history of mass murder, and rename the last Monday in May in honor of some pagan holiday – because Memorial Day is an oxymoron in a nation of amnesiacs.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
There are always exceptions to the rule in any dark age, some who recall and preserve valuable knowledge that has been lost or reconfigured into its exact opposite: in our era of eternal warfare, surely the readers and supporters of Antiwar.com fit into that category. The polemic above is obviously not aimed in their direction.
As the chief repository of historical memory when it comes to the folly of America’s wars, Antiwar.com is serving a special audience – one that presumably doesn’t have to be lectured on the importance of opposing our foreign policy of endless intervention, and needn’t be reminded of history’s grim lessons.
Except that you do need to be reminded – or else we here at Antiwar.com wouldn’t have to resort to hectoring you for nearly a month in order to keep our heads above water.
The good news is we’ve managed to raise $32,000 from a small group of supporters. We have to match that in smaller individual contributions in order to get access to those funds. I don’t like this constant dunning any more than you do, but it is absolutely necessary for us to continue our work. So please help me put an end to my hectoring and make your tax-deductible contribution to Antiwar.com today