Memorial Day

In the United States, this Monday is Memorial Day, established by Congress to commemorate America’s war dead. Across the nation, the day is marked by parades and solemn ceremonies, 21-gun salutes, roll calls of the names of the fallen, and flags, wreaths and ribbons placed on the graves of veterans. These ceremonies are familiar to us; we repeat them every year. And yet, those flags seem to have a special poignancy this year. Against the green grass, their colors seem especially bright.

Perhaps it is because this year we have so much to remember, so many more names to add to that solemn list. There has never been a period when America was truly at peace, but the last decade of the twentieth century offered hope that perhaps such a time was just around the corner, that we might be entering onto an era of relative tranquility and security. But that hope was shattered on a September morning in 2001, and since then, this country has had to come to terms with a wholly new kind of enemy, faceless and implacable, and has become embroiled in a bloody, seemingly endless, and probably unwinnable sectarian war in a fractured country. Ever since then, the country I live in and love has been under a dark cloud, ruled by an administration whose corruption, incompetence, sanctimonious hypocrisy, and outright evil far surpass any in living memory.

Some may say that I am being disrespectful by leveling such charges on a day that should be an occasion for patriotism, a day when we should honor our fallen in silence and not seek to gain partisan advantage. My answer is that it is my patriotism that compels me to speak, rather than to be silent. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who asserts that he has the right to seize American citizens on American soil, to arrest and jail them indefinitely without charges, without a trial, without a defense, based on nothing but the raw assertion that he believes them an enemy of the state. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who claims that he can eavesdrop and spy on American citizens as he alone sees fit, any time, any place, without a warrant, without oversight, for as long as he believes an indefinite and nebulous war on terror lasts. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who says that he and he alone will decide which laws apply to him, that there is no check or balance on his power but that he can wave away laws passed by a democratically elected Congress with the stroke of a pen in a signing statement. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who believes that he is accountable to God and not to the American people. These are not the ideals that Americans throughout history have fought for; these are not the ideals that Americans have died for.

Both in letter and spirit, these are the claims of tyranny, the very model of the arrogant, self-righteous monarchy whose shackles our predecessors fought a bloody war to free themselves from. Then as now, there will always be those who defend kings and dictators, who assert that only in a blind submission to the claims of authority can peace and safety be found. Benjamin Franklin warned us about such people over two hundred years ago.

In fact, almost all the founding fathers anticipated the threats we now face, often with what seems like eerie foresight. Or perhaps their prescience was not so uncanny, since the seed of tyranny is reborn in every generation in much the same guise. Either way, knowing they would not always be there to warn us against such threats, they crafted a document that would protect their descendants as best as possible, knowing that the reins of power must always be held by fallible, corruptible humans, and that even in a democracy, demagogues can manipulate the concerns and passions of the common people to sway them to their whims. And of course, there will always be those who are not just willing, but eager to believe the old lies.

But out of all the long slate of crimes that can be laid, and that future generations will lay, at the foot of the current administration, the war in Iraq will doubtless stand near the top of the list. This war has accomplished the uniquely paradoxical goal of removing a cruel and brutal dictator from power and simultaneously making the people of his nation far worse off than they were under his rule. Premised on a tissue of lies, this war was a strategic blunder on a staggeringly enormous scale, and will tarnish America’s image worldwide and ensure that the Middle East continues to be a breeding ground for terrorism and chaos for decades to come.

No blame accrues to America’s servicemembers for any of this. Except for those few who have participated in acts of torture or reprisal killings against civilians, they bear no responsibility for these failures. They have faithfully obeyed the orders of their commanders, and they have done all that possibly could be asked of them. Their valor and heroism are beyond dispute. What is in dispute is the intelligence, good sense, and patriotism of those who insist that they keep putting themselves in danger, keep laying down their lives, in support of an objective that was mangled and botched from the beginning and that now grows ever more nebulous as the bloodshed continues with no end in sight. Love of country and respect for our soldiers’ sacrifices, both those who have fallen and those who still serve, compels us to speak on these matters. To do anything else would be the true example of disrespect for America’s valiant defenders.

But today is, after all, a day for remembrance, and I do remember the 2465 (and counting) Americans whose blood has been shed on the field of combat. This Memorial Day, let us remember those who have given all they had to give, both by their lives and their deaths; and let that memory not be a hollow ceremony, a ceremony of empty words repeated by rote each year, but let it be true and deep and meaningful, a sacred tradition maintained faithfully because we all understand the meaning behind it.

We must never forget that these were not faceless tools of the state, not mere instruments of national policy, but people living lives of their own, until their destinies were so suddenly diverted onto another track. Perhaps some of them entered combat ablaze with dreams of patriotic glory, willing to give their all in the cause of freedom; but I have no doubt that most of them were just ordinary men and women, not seeking honor, but thinking of the home, the family, the life they left behind and seeking to get back as soon as possible. Every death – every flag-draped coffin, every entry in a military ledger – represents a life lost, a dream destroyed, a family shattered. We will never know what promise these men and women had, what they could have achieved had we never entered into this war. We will never know what happiness and joy they could have brought to those who loved them in the course of a long and full life. Most of all, we can never bring them back. We can and will honor their sacrifices, and remember them in Memorial Days without end down through history to come, but that is pitifully inadequate compensation. The best gift we can give these honored dead is to work toward peace, by ending not just this war but all wars, so that future generations will never be asked to make the awesome sacrifice that far too many have now made. The people now in power in America do not understand that; we can only hope that those who come after them will.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • andrea

    If anyone says that you’re being “disrespectful” for calling the Bush administration a bunch of liars, they are living in a fantasy world. There is nothing more respectful to our war dead than to question those who sent them there because that is what they fought for, our right to do that. Bush has said that it is “honoring” our dead by staying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Truly? Then it would be “honoring” our dead to have remained in Vietnam, and Korea. Does anyone really think that’s true? The fascists in the White House seem to.
    My father, my brother and my husband have served in the armed forces (Army and Marines). I support the troops but I do not support the current wannabees in power.

  • http://worthlesswell.blogspot.com/ Unbeliever

    I fully support the invasion of Iraq. Saddam was a threat to the United States and the rest of the civilized world, and everyone involved believed that, even the Democrats who’ve since conveniently forgotten. This article continues the common error of equating mistakes with lies. The two are not the same.

    I honor all our servicemen because they fight and die so that I and my family don’t have to. I voted for Bush in 2004 not because I agree with his religous views or most of his politics, which I don’t, but because I fervently believe, and still do, that only he recognized the danger of Islamic terrorism an was willing to act to protect us from it.

    The 1993 bombing of the WTC should have been a wake-up call, but nobody did anything, and almost 3,000 people paid for that mistake with their lives.

    I, too, am familiar with Franklin’s quote. It says, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I agree with this. But the safety we are looking for is not little or temporary. It is the safety to not have our cities destroyed by chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in the hands of Islamic extremists. And if we do nothing to stop it, it will go on and on.

    Has the war in Iraq been handled well? Of course not, there have been some truly spectacular mistakes. But aren’t all wars like that? Didn’t WWII have its share of disasters? The only way to measure a war is to look at its goals and what it takes to achieve them. The US military has done everything in its power to reduce civilian deaths. It has worked tirelessly to help rebuild Iraq. It is giving the Iraqis an opportunity to choose their own path rather than have a homicidal maniac choose it for them.

    Yes, sometimes this administration has crossed the line. And I support your denouncing of those activities, but the idea that we are all far less free is laughable. What have I lost? So the government now knows my phone number and will be flagged if I called anyone in a cave in Pakistan. Why should I care? I haven’t been blown up by someone named Mohammed. That, to me, is far more important.

    I think that there are some ligitimate reasons to oppose the invasion of Iraq, but whatever they might be, we are there now. We must finish what we started or those 2,465 will have died for nothing. We must continue to aid our Iraqi friends in building a free nation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I fully support the invasion of Iraq. Saddam was a threat to the United States and the rest of the civilized world, and everyone involved believed that, even the Democrats who’ve since conveniently forgotten.

    Saddam Hussein was no threat to anyone outside the borders of Iraq. Although he was an evil tyrant, he was contained, and the United Nations weapons inspections programs were working. Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction left, which is why to this day our invasion has not turned up any evidence of them. Lest we forget, the alleged presence of those weapons was the reason we invaded in the first place.

    I voted for Bush in 2004 not because I agree with his religous views or most of his politics, which I don’t, but because I fervently believe, and still do, that only he recognized the danger of Islamic terrorism an was willing to act to protect us from it.

    And what has he done to protect us from it? Capture Osama bin Laden? Nope – we may have had a chance to catch him at Tora Bora, but Bush let him slip away, and has done his best to forget about him ever since. Safeguard America’s borders and ports? Nope – the bipartisan 9/11 Commission gave his administration a failing grade at doing just that last year, and no significant actions that I’m aware of have been taken since. In fact, as you’ll recall, Bush recently tried to turn over control of our ports to a UAE state-owned corporation with ties to Bin Laden himself. Secure loose nuclear material to keep it from falling into terrorists’ hands? Nope – in fact, Bush has called for reductions in funding to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that works with the former Soviet Union. Has he even taken any substantial measures to win us energy independence from the Arab countries that sell us our oil and use the proceeds to fund Islamic extremism? No.

    In fact, Bush’s actions have if anything made us less safe, by turning Iraq from a stable, albeit dictatorially ruled, country, into a chaotic failed state that serves as a breeding ground for terrorists and where the military and National Guard that could otherwise be protecting our homeland are tied down indefinitely in a bloody war of attrition. Additionally, Bush administration actions such as the torture and indefinite extrajudicial imprisonment of terror suspects have stained our image worldwide and convinced many Muslims to rally to the cause of jihad.

    The 1993 bombing of the WTC should have been a wake-up call, but nobody did anything…

    That is just false. The Clinton administration tracked down, arrested and convicted the conspirators who planned that attack, including Mohammad Salameh, Nidal Ayyad, Mahmud Abouhalima, Ahmad Ajaj, Ramzi Yousef and Omar Abdel-Rahman. All of them are currently serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.

    …and almost 3,000 people paid for that mistake with their lives.

    The only people who deserve blame for that oversight are the members of the Bush administration, who had ample opportunity to prevent the 9/11 attacks and utterly failed to do so. FBI director Tom Pickard, for example, testified under oath that he tried to warn Attorney General John Ashcroft about the terrorist threat in July 2001, only to have Ashcroft say that he did not want to hear anything about terrorism (he was preoccupied with more important matters, such as covering the bare breast of a statue of Justice). Condoleeza Rice received a briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S.” and dismissed it without a second thought.

    Has the war in Iraq been handled well? Of course not, there have been some truly spectacular mistakes. But aren’t all wars like that?

    No, all wars are not like that. Most wars are characterized by careful planning, including a clearly defined set of objectives, a plan for achieving those objectives, a plan for keeping the peace in the aftermath of combat, and a well-defined exit strategy. The Iraq war, on the other hand, seems to be characterized by its lack of all four.

    Yes, sometimes this administration has crossed the line. And I support your denouncing of those activities, but the idea that we are all far less free is laughable. What have I lost? So the government now knows my phone number and will be flagged if I called anyone in a cave in Pakistan. Why should I care? I haven’t been blown up by someone named Mohammed. That, to me, is far more important.

    That is exactly the attitude the Bush administration wants you to have: that the danger is so grave that we must blindly go along with anything they ask of us, up to and including completely dismantling the Constitution and turning the country into a dictatorship under George W. Bush, who in order to protect us needs unlimited power with no checks, no balances and no accountability to anyone.

    There is absolutely no precedent for this. Even during the height of the Cold War, when America faced nuclear annihilation from the USSR on a daily basis, no presidential administration felt the threat to be so great that our fundamental constitutional liberties had to be indefinitely suspended. Do you really believe that a few scattered, ragtag bands of terrorists are an even greater threat than that?

  • andrea

    What I find funny is that Bill O’Reilly is also jumping off the Iraq war wagon. “Iraq was an optional war” (check out his talking points on foxnews.com).
    If Iraq was such a threat, why haven’t we attacked countries that are much more of a threat? North Korea? Pakistan? Libya? If it was a humanitarian gesture, why aren’t we in Myanmar and most of the countries in Africa? Iraq did not have any WMDs, nor “lab trucks”, it was not involved in 9/11 nor the earlier WTC attack. Why were we there exactly again? And, now this incompetently executed war has generated the same atrocities like Vietnam. and I just got to speak on the BBC World Have Your Say radio broadcast about it today (yep, I’m awfully proud of that)

    BTW, the claim that you don’t have anything to worry about since you aren’t calling “a cave in Pakistan” is nonsense. Even though it was written by a priest with a questionable background, Father Neimoller’s poem about there being no one left to speak when they came for “me” rings true time and time again.

  • Azkyroth

    I’m sure that Our decIsion to attack Iraq was not undertaken Lightly and that there were gOod reasons for doIng so. Let’s just leave it at that. :P

  • Eziekel

    Bush has been an absolutely horrible president since his second election, not as though he wasn’t in his first term either, but when compared to Kerry, he’s the lesser of two evils. I think we have no other choice but to stay in Iraq until it is safe to evacuate. I do agree that we should have never invaded Iraq though, and those deaths are pointless. the real issue here is that this is another religious war with a christian agenda, and no man, woman, or child of any faith should die in the name of god, one which we ALL know to be conceptualized as an instrument for explanation, rather than based any empiracle evidence. This war is a new age crusade, chrisitians vs. the muslim extremist, and it’s the christians fault that the lesser jihad, i.e fighting the infidels in the holy battle, became the greater jihad, formerly fighting the evil within one’s self. And this goes back to the crusades when the christians overtook jeruselem. the bottom line is that bush is attempting to become a tyrannical dictator propogating christianity. The ignorant fuck actually pretends to be doing “god’s work” like he’s some sort of prophet. This is a religious war and we need to fully secularize the u.s so this bloodshed in the name of god ends.

  • Azkyroth

    So how exactly is it that you figure Bush is the lesser of two evils, then? Are you getting all your information about Kerry’s position on Iraq from Bush propoganda or something? Your stated position on Iraq is more or less the same as Kerry’s (his “pottery barn” metaphor, for example), except Kerry’s was coupled with the understanding that our current approach to Iraq is making things increasingly unsafe there by needlessly fanning tensions and tossing bone after bone to the extremist psychos.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I concur with Azkyroth: Eziekel, since we agree that Bush has been an absolutely disastrous president, why do you think he was the lesser of two evils when compared to Kerry? I’m genuinely curious.

  • Jeff T

    Adam,
    I am a retired veteran and I appreciate your thoughts on this subject as well as atheism. I voted proudly for the Libertarian Candidate for President based on his promise of bringing the Troops home within 90 days. Mistake or intentional misleading is irrelevant in my opinion. Iraq cannot be won with the current policy of being a ‘Knight of the Round Table’ as you walk through the minefields and are shot at from religious sanctuaries. Rome showed the world how to win a war with the Third Punic War. Carthage was razed, its walls destroyed and the people scattered. That is what a war is and why I could not fathom those in America wanting a war. Then again, America didn’t want a war, they wanted roses thrown at the Troops by joyful Iraqis who were greatful to be saved from Saddam.
    Would I go to war willingly and die for the freedom of Americans against a legitimate threat? I like to think I would. Would I want to go walk through minefields, IEDs, suicide bombers and be the recipient of racial and cultural hatred while being obligated to be as nice as possible to the perpetrators? No thanks.

  • Eziekel

    Perhaps I should have specified as to where my information on Kerry had come from, my cousin worked on Kerry’s campaign during the election. Kerry had a strong stance as to remove the soldiers from iraq but literally had no plan to do so. it’s not entirely his fault at all, bush fucked the situation up so much in the first place that, hey, we’re still there today with no evacuation in sight. the fact is, that was his primary campaign focus but it was all b.s. there is nothing good about bush, but once you put a country in that condition, that country needs to be restored. this can be argued either way and no one will give. And yes, oil is a huge part of this entire war and if bush would do something to evoke the use of alternative feuls, namely, hydrogen, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess, and maybe we’d have a much cleaner environment too. but like i said, bush is a terrible leader.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Would I go to war willingly and die for the freedom of Americans against a legitimate threat? I like to think I would. Would I want to go walk through minefields, IEDs, suicide bombers and be the recipient of racial and cultural hatred while being obligated to be as nice as possible to the perpetrators? No thanks.

    I feel much the same way. I strongly believe that if America was faced with a legitimate threat and there was a recruiting shortfall, I would gladly volunteer, but Iraq was not a legitimate threat. This war was conceived as a war of empire, and that is something I will never support.

    Incidentally, sir, allow me to thank you for your service. I am always grateful to those who served in defense of my freedom as an American, and no time is better than Memorial Day to express that gratitude.

    Perhaps I should have specified as to where my information on Kerry had come from, my cousin worked on Kerry’s campaign during the election. Kerry had a strong stance as to remove the soldiers from iraq but literally had no plan to do so.

    Perhaps that is true. But Bush and the Republicans undeniably also have no plan at all. How then are they the lesser of two evils in that respect?

  • Eziekel

    You are right, bush doesn’t have an exit strategy, but he doesn’t plan on evacuating until the threat (albeit, he created the threat by attacking in the first place) is minimized (which doesn’t look promising in the near future). but this is where opinions go either way, some think our troops should be pulled out as soon as possible and fuck iraq, but i think we must stay given the circumstances at this juncture. this can be argued all day and no one will change their minds, but that’s how bush is slightly less evil, i guess. bush is doing the right thing, horribly, (staying there, not going) and kerry would have just done the wrong thing. hitler was a genius who did horrible things, bush is an idiot who should have never been put in office, who is so delusional and he thinks he’s doing god’s work, as he said in a speach in turkey, so he thinks he’s doing good.

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  • Bezerkerette

    Well Spoken!

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    The best gift we can give these honored dead is to work toward peace, by ending not just this war but all wars, so that future generations will never be asked to make the awesome sacrifice that far too many have now made. The people now in power in America do not understand that; we can only hope that those who come after them will.

    Thank you for the outstanding thoughts, Adam. Very kind.

    Take Care,

    Matt

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Thanks, all. I should point out that this post was written in 2006, and some things have changed since then (though not everything, alas). Perhaps I should write an updated version for the coming year.


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