Sunday, May 27, 2018

'Every military casualty of every war has contributed to our freedom'


    Patriotic Americans honor the sacrifice of our nation's military without glorifying war. Not always as easy or as clear a distinction to make as it sounds. It can be a short leap from commemorating soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to valorizing every conflict. And not one we should automatically make, because it softens us up for the next war. Which is always waiting around the corner, and easier to start if we feel it's necessary, by definition, because they're always necessary, even laudable. 


     We arrived early at the parade this year, setting up our blue canvas folding chairs along Cherry Street, staking out a good spot.
     We needn't have bothered -- when the parade began, a half-hour later, there was still plenty of open curb space. The neighborhood certainly wasn't jamming the route.
     We're a nation at war, I thought, as the well-scrubbed fire trucks strobed by. Yet we don't act that way.
     Maybe that's a function of living in a leafy suburban paradise like Northbrook. Not exactly a military town. We enjoy the benefits, but the price is being paid by someone else.
     After the fire trucks, the vets, carrying the banner of the George W. Benjamin American Legion Post 791. As they approached, those lining both sides of the street stood up and applauded.
     Two marching bands — from the junior high school and the high school — a troop of Boy Scouts and of Brownies and then it was over. Eight minutes, start to finish.
     Afterward, my wife and I went to the park at the center of town, to hear the speeches and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
     As the speakers spoke of honor and sacrifice, I held my notebook. But I only jotted down one sentence.
     "Every military casualty of every war has contributed to our freedom," said Maj. Gen. Clifton Capp (Retired).
     I rolled that sentence over in my mind all the lovely Monday afternoon, sitting on my front porch, watching the flag undulate in the spring sunshine, trying to pick apart what it means.
     It's the safe view, of course. Every soldier a hero, every skirmish important, every war unavoidable.
     And as long as it is relegated to the past, you can't argue it — nobody wants to question the value of sacrifice.
     But buried in there is a troubling implication — the suggestion that every time the military is sent somewhere to fight, our freedom is on the line. That's certainly what supporters of the war in Iraq seem to believe. But is it true, or is it circular logic? Are we fighting in Iraq because our freedom is on the line? Or do we feel our freedom is on the line in Iraq because we're fighting there?

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 28, 2008


  1. As relevant as ever. With a granddaughter in the military, the ongoing conflicts, along with the inevitable future conflict, are more than some abstract measure of sacrifice. The consequences are real and personal.

  2. A good antidote to "valorizing every conflict" is to revisit the works of WW I poets like Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen. The latter, who died in the last week of the war, warned against telling

    "...with such high zest

    To children ardent for some disparate glory,

    The old lie 'Dolce et Decorum Est

    Pro patria mori."


  3. We got into the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, from which we have yet to extricate ourselves, because of the stubbornness and stupidity of George W. Bush. Instead of treating the 9/11 hijackers and their handlers as what they were--criminals--he decreed the grand-sounding and entirely vacuous concept of a "global war on terror." Not only was this absurd on its face (how do you wage war against an abstract noun?), it elevated the 9/11 criminals to the status of warriors, which is exactly what they wanted.

    We get into wars like those because politicians make ignorant assumptions and take foolish actions. We stay in them because those politicians, or their successors, are prepared to accept almost limitless casualties, among both our troops and civilian populations, rather than admit that they made a mistake.

    Yes, support our troops. Support them against those who are, fundamentally, their greatest enemies: blundering politicians.

  4. I am profoundly ambivalent about the issue of honoring military service, particularly that of my fellow Vietnam veterans. Stationed in Danang early in the war, comfortably distant from actual combat, I was able to observe how Vietnamese civilians and soldiers were looked down upon and in many instances actually mistreated by many American servicemen--the saying prevalent among them was, "Same, same Viet Cong." Many, many years later I've read about and seen on television instances in which veterans have visited areas where they fought and engaged in friendly meetings with an enemy they had learned to respect. Moreover, many soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home relating stories of friendship and mutual respect with natives of those countries. To honor every serviceman that ever served anywhere, in any capacity, and with any behavior, is utter nonsense of course, but it is the kind of thing that is expected of patriots, be they Major-Generals or simple civilians, Historians have the latitude of telling the truth as do columnists of course. Glad to hear it from time to time.



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