Twice a year, in November and May, the U.S. officially celebrates its men and women in uniform. Veterans Day can slide by quickly with a speech and a raised flag, given its midweek status in late fall, but Memorial Day, a three day weekend and the unofficial start to summer, is more likely to inspire a parade—along with a party, a barbeque, and a fair amount of beer.
As a kid, I biked all over our suburb’s streets, and consequently, some vigilant porch sitters and I noticed each other, spoke to each other, and began to look forward to our visits. What I remember most is talking about World War II. I can’t say I learned a lot about the war itself, but I clearly saw that something about this was a really big deal. I listened respectfully and intently, tried to understand the period novels I read, and when the subject came up in social studies, I paid attention.
Growing up in the sixties, I was to learn a lot more about armed conflict. As one speaker put it, “List four people you know between the ages of 18 and 24. Now cross off the first name on your list. That’s what war in Vietnam meant.” Ironically, President Johnson made Memorial Day an official U.S. Holiday, in 1966.
Today, the cry is constant—support the troops. God, I hate that word. Sounds better when “troops” are killed rather than “people”? But why the animosity often associated with the cry? Where are the groups crying, “Oppose the troops!”? Oh yeah—no such groups. Who doesn’t support the troops? And frankly, maybe that support shouldn’t be so blind. The massacre at My Lai? Prisoner abuse at Abu Grahab? The “retaliatory” murder of an innocent Iraqi citizen? One of my acquaintances, a Navy veteran, insists that we must support all of the troops no matter what.
I can’t agree. Such myopic reasoning allows troops to become little more than political pawns—any opposition brings the cry “Support the Troops!” Take Rumsfeld’s insistence—against the advice of the Pentagon—to run the Iraq war on the cheap. Friends, families and neighbors chip in to help buy the body armor the government neglected to supply. Soldiers raid junk yards to protect their vehicles from road side bombs. Where’s the support for the troops there? And when the Bush administration’s policies have clearly failed, the President grasps for a magical solution—more troops, with no clear plan, but clearly ready to sacrifice more lives on the chance he can still save face. So Congress finally tries to use the only real weapon it has to stop this nonsense—cut funding. Time for the cry—“Support the Troops!”
I’m quite ready to honor the troops, to remember those who gave so much to their country. But I’m not happy about it, especially now. I’m not naïve—as former President Carter noted when awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, war is sometimes a necessary evil. At the same time, however, “it is always an evil,” and not a course of action a country should so rashly follow.
So today we honor fallen troops. I am grateful to them, but I’d rather we were honoring them as the parents, spouses, doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, businessmen, mayors, and citizens they should have been.