Honoring our sacred dead

Jun 2, 2004 at 12:00 am

Last weekend, America marked Memorial Day, the holiday designed to honor all our dead from all our wars, at a time when the nation is involved for the first time in a war that may never end.

We are actually in two such wars, both proclaimed by President Bush: One against terrorism, and the other in Iraq. Not only don’t we know how they are supposed to end, we don’t even know how we’ll be able to tell if we have “won.”

That’s something new. During World War II, we were told the war would end when our enemies unconditionally surrendered. Vietnam, everyone knew, was over when the North completed overrunning the South.

Our bloodiest conflict, the Civil War, ended when the armies of the Confederacy were defeated and the states stopped trying to secede.

But what can we do to bring our current wars to an end?

Next weekend, there will be ceremonies in many countries honoring those who died June 6, 1944, in the great invasion to free Europe from Nazi control. There will soon be no more survivors of that famous day. Today, there is near-universal agreement that this was a necessary and noble cause.

Meanwhile, the dead from both our current wars are still coming home. What will people think years from now when they visit their graves?

We have no idea. About all we do know is that on June 30, we will “transfer sovereignty” in Iraq to some powerless nobody we have yet to select. The idea that this will be a meaningful exercise is an insult to our intelligence.

Even Joseph Stalin was a trifle more discreet in setting up his puppet states, and that is no exaggeration. To act as though what is supposed to happen in Iraq June 30 is legitimate or real is to take part in a fraud.

Yet the media daily allow this sort of nonsense to go unchallenged. That’s a sad commentary on the state of the lapdog press, which is so petrified of being labeled “liberal” it has largely abandoned its responsibility to report honestly.

That includes even The New York Times. Last week, the Times, fighting to cling to a few shreds of integrity, was forced to publish a bizarre article spanking itself for doing such a piss-poor job of “flawed” reporting before the war started, mainly by uncritically accepting the lies of various stooges about weapons of mass destruction. (Naturally, the article which appeared was virtually incomprehensible to anyone but newspaper insiders.)

Whoopee. About all I am sure of is that “transfer of sovereignty” doesn’t mean that we intend to leave any time soon. (Imagine if our off-the-shelf puppets should ask us to go!) As far as I can make out, our policy is that we don’t intend to leave Iraq unless the people stop trying to make us leave.

Someday, however, we will go, if only because our public no longer is willing to tolerate the cost in blood and treasure, as they used to say. We will lose interest, as we did in Vietnam, bug out, and leave Iraq to its own devices.

That probably will mean civil war, a radical Islamic regime and the deaths of many thousands, including those few who supported us. But, hey.

Trying to figure out how to end the “war on terror” is far harder to fathom. Not that I would ever be cynical, but it isn’t clear that the politicians will be eager to end it. For what could be better for a sitting President than a shadowy foe and a twilight war that can be pulled off the shelf when you need it?

Why, the war on terror can be blamed for everything from inflation to the low price of pork bellies. Terror isn’t exactly new in American life, by the way. Anarchists killed scores of Americans with bombs a century ago, and assassinated President William McKinley. Bobby Kennedy was murdered by a self-styled Palestinian terrorist. Think Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

True, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are different, and mean to do us harm on a global scale. But how have we handled that threat? Of all the books on what happened after Sept. 11, Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies is the best and least political. He was an assistant secretary of state who served one Democrat and three Republican presidents. Here’s how he sees it:

“The nation needed thoughtful leadership to deal with the underlying problems September 11 reflected … instead, America got unthinking reactions, ham-handed responses, and a rejection of analysis in favor of received wisdom. It has left us less secure. We will pay the price for a long time.”

We will. That is not to dishonor the hundreds of American troops who have been shipped home in flag-draped caskets. They enlisted to defend this country against all enemies, and could not pick where they were sent.

Our democracy has survived in part because it requires our soldiers to have unquestioning trust in civilian authority. And peace activists and progressives don’t like to admit it, but this nation and its freedoms could not have endured without our armed forces.

The dead from Falluja trusted in their leaders, as did the boys on the Normandy beaches and at Gettysburg and in the jungles of Vietnam. The dead of all our wars are, indeed, tragic heroes, who fought and died for a cause, which is better than dying for nothing.

We’ve gotten very good at dying for various causes, good and bad, and honoring the dead is altogether fitting and proper, as Abraham Lincoln said. But maybe, just maybe, someday we’ll honor those who worked not to send men to die for their country, but to give them a world where they were able to live for it.

Wouldn’t that be worth a parade?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]