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Memorial Day; an addition

Memorializing the other American war dead.

May 2007

Abstract:
Americans killed in foreign wars are a small fraction of the Americans killed by Americans in our internal war on crime.  Foreign and domestic victims of violence equally deserve remembrance, with a feeling of national shame, on Memorial Day.
It's an unfortunate fact that all countries have had wars, and have lost citizens in wars.  And most countries have a day set aside to remember their fallen.  Today is Memorial Day here in America.  We pause to remember Americans who have lost their lives in war.  I find in this holiday a need to reflect not only on those who died, but also on what they died for and on who were responsible for their deaths.  In most cases, I'm sorry to say, they died needlessly, as a result of politicians' inability to resolve political issues with other politicians.  Most young men's death in war have been directly and needlessly caused by old men's failure to prevent it.

Let's remember also that most of the Americans whom we honor this day were killed not by evil foreigners but by other Americans.  War deaths in the U.S. Civil War still outstrip the total of deaths from all other U.S. wars combined, though we're doing our best to catch up.

But my main thought for this day of honoring our fallen is that violence directed against our society, resulting in innocent deaths, comes not only from outside, as in a foreign war, but equally from inside, as in crime, our internal war.  Not equally, really:  the fallen in America's endemic crime war we're just about the most criminal of all technologically advanced nations far outstrip the fallen in America's other wars.  America is indeed, at this moment, waging a widely ignored war against itself:  while the loss of roughly 1,000 Americans this year in the Iraqi war and occupation is rightly considered tragic and worthy of memorializing, the 17,000 Americans killed this year here at home by other Americans are given practically no attention by the media, apparently unworthy of notice.  (See my essay from September 2004 which shows that the U.S. rate of deadly violence is even higher than the murder statistics indicate.)

How can it be that we ignore the great bulk of our fallen in war?  The number of murders in the U.S. is of course a national embarrassment;  no one in this country could profit from emphasizing it.  And memorializing crime victims doesn't carry the feeling of national pride that's associated with honoring war victims.  It would instead bring on a feeling of shame, and a national Day of Shame is not likely to be proclaimed by Congress any time soon.

But let's think again about the causes of war deaths.  Is pride really an appropriate emotion?  The foot soldiers of all ages, whether Alexander's, Napoleon's, Hitler's, or Bush's, have been as expendable as bullets.  Napoleon spoke of having available each month a resupply of so many bullets and so many soldiers.  You use them up and get new ones.  There is nothing new in this; waging a war assumes a detached inhumanity by the war leaders, and the soldiers are used up like bullets.  Like tires and rations.  There's nothing heroic in this, there's only the tragedy of failure and stupidity at the leadership level.  This, the failure of political leadership, is what we wind up memorializing on Memorial Day.  "In memory of our son and his short life, and of the politicians who tragically used his life for their ends."  In the words of John McCutcheon ("Christmas in the Trenches"):  "the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame."  War represents a failure of policy, at times a callous and calculated failure of policy.  The fact is that each and every war that our country has entered could have been avoided by national leaders with foresight and wisdom; national leaders we have not had.  Instead we've had leaders who have failed to prevent war, and on Memorial Day we remember their failures.  We appropriately bow our heads in prayer; we should also bow our heads in national shame for our needless dead.

And for the victims of our internal war.  17,000 Americans killed each year are treated by the media as a detail, or rather, they're not treated at all by the media.  But they reflect the same kind of failure of leadership as those lost in foreign wars, and the victims are equally innocent and tragic.  It is time for us to stop treating these 17,000 dead as just a fact of life; time to lift the rug under which we've swept this tragedy and acknowledge openly this source of national shame.  Let Memorial Day be a day devoted first to reflection on the past failures that have foolishly wasted hundreds of thousands of lives on our streets and on our battle fronts, and then to learning lessons for the future, how we go about ridding our society of the dual horrors of foreign war and internal crime.  Neither is natural or inevitable.  Both are results of our own failures and are avoidable.  Ridding our society of these twin cancers would be one of the greatest legacies we could leave to succeeding generations.

© 2007 H. Paul Lillebo

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