What Memorial Day should mean

They died screaming in agony and in their sleep, in the mud and splattered against the windows of their cockpits. They were impaled on bayonets and tortured to death and slipped and fell in front of their own tanks.

Remembering them is what Memorial Day is supposed to be about. Let’s face it, our species loves war. We are almost never without one somewhere.

And Michigan has been sending soldiers to die in our nation’s wars ever since it became a state. Michigan boys died in Korea the week I was born; at least two died last week in Iraq, and more will surely follow.

By my tally, something like 34,000 of us have been killed in our various wars since 1861, not counting those who fell during what we as kids called, with imperial incorrectness, "Injun fighting." We officially remember the dead, or pretend to, once a year, which, by the way, is why you had Monday off from work, in case you thought it was to recover from the Indianapolis 500.

Few of us visit veterans’ graves, which was the original idea of the holiday. Far more of us play volleyball, and perhaps give a few fleeting thoughts to our poor bastards in Iraq. Nasty work, but lots of us do put those yellow ribbon stickers on our cars to show we support our troops.

And we think we’re doing something that has to be done. Which is easy to do if you, like most Americans, don’t read very much, don’t know very much about what’s really going on, and know appallingly little history.

Whatever their faults, the blithely racist and sexist dead white men who founded this nation had some good advice: Stay out of other people’s conflicts that don’t concern you; stay out of other people’s wars. We actually did, for a while, partly because we were poor and weak and they were a long way away.

These days, however, we have eagerly signed on to be the world’s brawling policeman. We jumped into Vietnam and Afghanistan and now Iraq.

We’ve fought to make the world safe for democracy, and we fought in a war to end all wars, and we fought to ensure peace — and none of it worked.

We fought to save South Vietnam from communism, though most of the inhabitants evidently didn’t want to be saved. Our leaders, who said they knew so much better than we did, told us that if we didn’t succeed, the "dominoes" would topple and all the surrounding countries would be lost.

But we did lose that war. Not only did none of the surrounding countries go communist (except once-neutral Cambodia, after we attacked it), in a few short years the communist giants disappeared, or mutated out of all recognition.

Today Vietnam is, ironically, almost the only communist nation left in the world. (Other than the other two we once attacked, Cuba and North Korea.) But we are friends with Vietnam now, and send them Coca-Cola, and sometimes they send us bone fragments of the 58,000 Americans who died there, a few of whom were in high school with me, and all of whom died for nothing.

Nothing. Now we’re fighting, as far as I can tell, to give Iraq something we call democracy, and which a few Iraqis on our payroll say they want.

That doesn’t mean all the wars we fought were mistakes. Yes, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had to be stopped. But they never would have existed if it hadn’t been for the greed of the winning powers (our side) in World War I.

They might have been stopped without a world war had the United States joined the League of Nations, something that was blocked by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Years later, when World War II was ending, just as man got the power to blow up the entire planet, even the Republicans were rattled.

So we established something called the United Nations, which was supposed to make sure that nothing like that happened again.

But the fanatics who hate any kind of international cooperation are now doing their best to kill the United Nations. In a stunning insult to the world, their president has nominated a thoroughly nasty little bureaucratic tyrant who despises the United Nations to be our ambassador to the world body.

His name is John Bolton. "There’s no such thing as the United Nations. If the UN secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference," he once said. He openly says that when the UN General Assembly votes in a way we don’t like, we should contemptuously ignore it.

What he wants is a return to a world where individual countries do whatever the hell they want, and can get away with. Since we’re the world’s last superpower, they think we have no reason to fear the consequences.

Here’s what you should know about the United Nations: As imperfect as it is, it has prevented some wars and limited many others. The best argument for it is a negative; there hasn’t been a new world war since it was founded in 1945.

Which was the whole point. Last week I had breakfast with a man I admire very much, Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation. Though we don’t think about nuclear war very much these days, Navasky believes, as I do, that the risk is far greater now than in the locked-down days of the Cold War, when the dons of the two biggest syndicates had tight control over the heat.

"There are so many loose nukes out there following the meltdown of the Soviet Union," he muses. Sooner or later, someone nasty will sell one.

Here’s something else every child in this country should be taught about war, and something every adult in this nation should never forget.

We have profited far more and suffered far less from war than any country in the history of the world. Yes, we have lost young men and a few young women, but far less than other countries we fought against — or alongside.

Nor have we ever had to fight a war on our soil, not since the Civil War, and even then the fighting was almost all in the South. The Soviet Union lost 27 million killed in World War II; Germany, 6 million, and their land was ravaged.

The United States of America lost 400,000, including those who fell off trucks, and our nation grew immensely rich in the bargain. You may not realize that we live in a land truly unscathed by war. But the world knows it.

And in bombed-out huts across the Middle East, they deeply resent it. Don’t tell me that wasn’t part of Sept.11. The borders are porous, the world is smaller, and if we don‘t change our ways, we may be in big trouble.

This just in: From his cell in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein announced he’s launching a campaign to repair his image, beginning with yellow and green "Our dictator" billboards. "It’s been said I was arrogant, disrespectful and even a thug. But despite some mistakes, I have stood strong and remained focused." He received some surprising support from U.S. officials, who confirmed that there was no evidence he had used treasury funds to buy earrings.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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