Should Memorial Day include Commemoration of Thoreau?

Memorial Day began as a commemoration for the dead in the US Civil War, and especially for the Northern dead. Southern states for the most part had their own days of mourning for Confederate dead (some still do). Only after World War I when the day was repurposed as a commemoration of the soldiers killed in all American wars was it gradually adopted by all the states; ultimately it became the subject of Federal legislation.

In its original incarnation as a product of the Civil War, Memorial Day was divisive and triumphalist, a Northern institution. If it were more widely remembered that the day began with this focus, we might be less enthusiastic about it today. After all, we have mixed feeling about having fallen into civil war in the first place. Perhaps repurposing is central to our commemorations today.

Progressives have long been uncomfortable with the idea of a day dedicated to soldiers killed in the nation’s wars. Conflicts like James K. Polk’s Mexican War, William McKinley’s Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt’s Philippines War, Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War, and George W. Bush’s Iraq War were wars of aggression, seeking territory or resources or both. No one would want to exalt these seedy episodes in American history, however much we regret the soldiers’ lives expended.

Polk imposed a poll tax to pay for his Mexican War, which Henry David Thoreau declined to pay. He had authored, the first year of the war (1846), a work he entitled “Civil Disobedience,” staking out the right of individuals to decline to obey unjust laws. Thoreau went to jail for a night over the stance he took on the poll tax, until someone paid his bail. There is an anecdote that his friend, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to see him in jail. Emerson exclaimed, “What are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what you are doing out there?”

Thoreau was saying that in times of an unjust law and an unjust war, honorable persons will likely be in jail.

Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” went on to influence Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King (which is how we got the Civil Rights movement and an end to Jim Crow segregation.)

While the American soldiers who have died in the nation’s wars deserve to be memorialized, not all the wars they fought in do. A wise nation would barbecue with a sense of unease today, a sense of regret at all the unnecessary and merely greedy wars the nation has fought.

Memorial Day, it seems to me, should also honor the Thoreaus, the conscientious objectors, the anti-war protesters, who attempted to forestall or shorten the more unjust or immoral of these wars. It isn’t only the fallen soldiers who served the nation, but also those who worked to ensure that no soldiers fell in unjust wars, in wars that after the UN Charter was passed in 1945, would be designated as “illegal.”

56 Responses

  1. So, if I understand this correctly, from the point of view of a progessive, in 2003 those wearing a US military uniform were dishonorable, or at the least misguided.
    Wear as Bradely Manning would be honorable for exposing misconduct and trying to shorten a war. But for some reason progressives in the USA would lable anyone who would try to attack the prison where Bradely Manning was held and try to free him as misguided, if not dishonorable. Not that anyone
    in the world, let alone the USA, would try such a thing. (Ireland Excepted). Such public thinking seems a bit odd to me.

    • No, the soldiers in 2003 were honorable. I have gotten in a lot of trouble for having said so on the day of the invasion. But the war was illegal and a shame to the political class that sent them there. I don’t know very many soldiers or Marines who disagree with me about this, by the way.

      • If we are going to have to say in public that those soldiers wearing a US uniform since 2003 have been honorable, then, if we have an honest discussion, after such an honest discussion any person who maintains that US soldiers served honorably after 2003 would have to admit that soldiers of the Confederacy served honorably, and that Custer’s Calvery served honorably, and that even the German soldiers of the Wehrmacht served honorably in WW2. If all of those mentioned peopled served honorably, what is honor? What good is honor? Why should it be commemorated at all?

        • Of course not many soldiers or marines will disagree with you.
          Why did the USA have a military that did not self distruct when it was ordered to launch a blatant war of agression. But the people who had been leading and training the military before 2003 were not honorable leaders. They were dishonorable leaders who were produced by a dishonorable society when they were young who grew old to refine the the instruments of corruption and corrupt another generation of Americans. The military leadership was not alone in its crimial behavior. The press, the churches, the legal system, and so many other institutions had to collaborate
          to whip up a large number of Americans in to a frenzy of misplaced patriotism. This process has taken place over and over and over again in country after country through out history. What was so pathetic about the USA is that it leadership and very large percent of its people showed that they are incapable of learning the most basic lessons of history or learn to have even a basic understanding of how their own government operates. For a young recruit to have bought excuses for the war hook line and sinker is somewhat understandable. For a Major or Colonel to have fallen for such dribble is inexcusable.

      • Trouble with whom? Look, I was admittedly “hook, line, and sinker” over the stated mission/rationale (bad guy with WMDs/kill bad guy and destroy and/or confiscate WMD material). I’ll never forget in late Jan. 2004 the cover of TIME Magazine with David Kay and his quote “We were all wrong.” I felt sick… physically ill. I then spoke out as much as I could (almost too much . . . ) All that said, I still don’t know that it is an “illegal” war. Saddam was in clear violation of sanctions and inspections. We found out afterwards it was because he wanted to keep alive the perception that he had WMD so he could keep his people and Iran in check. So, while in hindsight it’s obvious it was a stupid decision (possibly the worst of modern era), I don’t see it meeting the threshold of “illegal.” Also, in your efforts to criminalize W & Co., let’s make sure not to paint a rosy picture of Saddam’s regime. This wasn’t exactly Nelson Mandela we pulled out of that rat hole, man.

        • In international law, as of 1945, you can’t just attack a country that hasn’t attacked you and isn’t a present and immediate danger to international order as designated by the UNSC. It was an illegal war.

        • Sean,
          by my estimates, one US Mercenary company hired by the Corps of Engineers . . . killed over 100,000 Iraqi civilians in around 3 years.
          Compare that to Saddam, who killed about 300,000 over 30 years.
          Saddam was no angel, but he didn’t come close to killing innocent Iraqis on the scale GW Bush did . . .
          Neat thing is, it’s still not too late to count the toll.
          I think that’s something we owe their survivors.

  2. Without a doubt, a double commemoration on the last Monday in May would be a great step forward. America was founded by many who were against endless wars. Thomas Paine wrote in the March 21, 1778, edition of his pamphlet The Crisis, “If there is a sin superior to every other, it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”

    Washington and others sought to keep America isolated for most of the next 140 years from foreign adventures. Likewise, the Civil War–as Juan Cole notes–was a fiasco for civil liberties and led to much unnecessary loss of life. Other countries, like Brazil, ended slavery without civil war.

    JFK stated that pacifists and anti-war Americans were important to the American society. Ignoring the will of these peoples is a travesty of the 21st Century in American politics.

  3. “While the American soldiers who have died in the nation’s wars deserve to be memorialized, not all the wars they fought in do.”

    In the sentence cited above, Professor Cole, you have summed up the meaning of Memorial Day. Our soldiers who have fallen on the battlefield, whether in pursuit of “just” or “unjust” wars (and there can be debate over which adjective applies to which wars) certainly deserve to be remembered. They were not responsible for the wars in which they fought, but they did their duty and paid the last measure one can pay. their sacrifice should not be any less memorialized because they fought in a war that we might consider “unjust.”

    • “They were not responsible for the wars in which they fought, but they did their duty and paid the last measure one can pay. their sacrifice should not be any less memorialized because they fought in a war that we might consider “unjust.””

      They may not have been responsible for starting the war, but they were responsible for keeping it going. Admittedly, it would take a soldier with enormous moral courage to refuse an order to fight, and they are very few and far between. Lt. Ehren Watada did that when he was ordered to fight in Iraq because he believed it would have been in violation of his oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, but he was the only officer in the Army to do so. He was court-martialed with the threat of a very serious punishment, but the Army was probably happy to let him go with a slap on the wrist after his defense team wanted the question of legality of the war to be part of the trial.

      One of the principles that came out of the Nuremberg Trials was that obeying an immoral or illegal order was no excuse for committing an immoral or illegal act. Like the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions that principle was tossed under the tanks and personnel carriers heading for Baghdad.

    • “paid the last measure they can pay.” {sob}

      Those of us who are “beneficiaries” of the diligence and great public largesse of the Veterans Administration, thanks to stuff that happened in one of those wars you have heretofore gone on at such didactic length about being “just” or “unjust,” might argue that being outright killed by an IED (sometimes made of US-manufactured bombs or artillery shells,) or “died instantly” shot through the head or heart, or ripped up and bled out in short order, is a maudlin “last full measure,” all right. But one might consider scale and scope and value of the “measure” that others of us live with for years or decades after, and our friends and families, who often were stupid and misguided enough to “support” us in our enlistments “for the good of the nation.” Sent on fool’s Imperial errands or “fund raisers,” by pompous, venal, idiotic, incompetent politicians and officers and the whole cadre of contractors and sneaky-petes and pedantic apologists and all the rest.

      That mawkish crap about “their sacrifice:” does that integrate all the various ways in which “our troops” get killed, from the nominally Medal of Honor brave, to the dude who flips a Mule while drag-racing down a hillside in I Corps, or rotting from some “medication” they were forced to consume or disease they acquired, etc.? Or are we supposed to just stop at the boundaries of the Myth and the Pathos? “Fought in a war:” you hint you know what that means. Do you? Really? The parts where guys are MPs in the main PX in Saigon and get rich off of various scams? the currency traders? The supply sergeants who sell trophy weapons taken from dead “gooks” back to the nominal enemy? the officers who steal their “troops’” class-A rations to trade to the Air Force guys for steaks and chicken flown in from home, so they could have a barbecue every night? The contractors who work drunk on aircraft and kill Troops by over-tightening a critical bolt, or leaving off a safety wire?

      The whole premise is a fraud, albeit an apparently inevitable part of the human behavioral set, starting in the very Cradle of Civilization, when the first would-be emperor used the surplus grain put up by husbandmen on the way to serfdom to arm up some Troops and send them over the Euphrates to put another little mud-walled “empire” to the sword, enslave the people they didn’t kill, and steal all their stuff. That Great Game, in all its subsequent, vicious, dishonest, destructive, stupid complexity.

  4. As a Brit, I didn’t know why US memorial practice is out of sync with Britain’s 11 November memorial day, so thanks for this.

    British war memorials are pretty much restricted to the two world wars. In France, it’s the world wars plus Algeria (I can’t recall if French deaths in Viet Nam are comemmorated). The really sad ones are the German second world war cemeteries, commemorating so many who died for such an utterly unworthy cause.

  5. It doesn’t matter why they were sent, it matters why they go. We do not honor wars on this day, we honor them as persons for having gone, for their personal sacrifice. If you cannot understand the difference then I pity you.

  6. Occasionally clarity and unguarded honesty combine to add another bit to the jigsaw puzzle. One Troop who worked out the end-game moral aspects of his service in a different way than I, or my uncle and father and several of my friends for that matter, did, came up with this explanation of The Meaning of Memorial Day:

    While in Iraq, my platoon cleared routes, patrolled cities and villages, conducted raids on suspected enemy homes, guarded oil facilities and watched over pharmaceutical distributors. All of these missions were carried out, so we were told, in the defense of freedom. I knew men who were wounded, some severely. I personally knew a few who were killed. I saw men changed permanently. I know I was.

    As a young soldier, I began the fight believing in the mission to my very core. We were in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After the WMD claims dissolved, I fought to stabilize the region and get rid of the al-Qaida insurgency in Iraq.

    Like many other American soldiers and civilians, I was manipulated into believing that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were interchangeable enemies, both guilty of the same thing. Each of us had our rationalization for fighting, our own personal excuse for being in the war. When I realized that much of the fighting resulted from our very presence in the country, I clung to my Catholic faith.

    Catholicism helped me cope with my involvement in Iraq in different ways. It was a comfort for me, especially during the hard times, and gave me a reason to stay in the fight. I began to fight to convert people to my belief system, and would discuss the differences between Christianity and Islam with my interpreter, an Iraqi national, and any other Iraqi civilian who would listen.

    I kept laminated prayer cards, depicting Gabriel, St. Michael, the pope and a crusader’s cross, in my utility pocket. For me, the fight became a holy one, a sort of modern crusade. A myriad of reasons, rationalizations, excuses.

    But then I finally admitted the truth to myself. I was fighting so that the United States could ensure its interests in the region whether it was oil, strategic troop placement or finding an additional ally in the Middle East — or a combination of them all. And you might think I became disillusioned. While it is true that I am no longer religious, I did not allow my time overseas to have a negative impact on my life. I have come to terms with my service in Iraq and realized that fighting for economic interests, while not as ennobling as fighting for freedom, actually protects the American way of life in its own fashion. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have gone to Iraq, but once we were there, we had little choice but to complete the mission.

    Regardless of how the American public feels about the war in Iraq, maintaining our standard of living sometimes comes at a high cost. War, and other subtler military moves, must be made in order for our nation to remain in contention as a world superpower and maintain the prosperity we have enjoyed for the last century. What makes the difference is how we commemorate the men and women who have died to protect our prosperity.

    link to blogs.tampabay.com

    Sort of explains it all, I guess… “It’s for the good of the Syndicate, and everybody has a share.” Fraudulent foreclosures dragging down real estate bubbles, hypervelocity stock “trading,” Keystone XL and the concommitant fracking, “declining infrastructure,” monolithic econopolitics, 4 or 6 or 8 degrees Celsius, Special Black Ops, the burgeoning Security State, and so on and so forth, we all have a share.

    I’m so proud of us!

    • ” If it were more widely remembered that the day began with this focus, we might be less enthusiastic about it today.”

      Except for the fact that most Americans prefer to believe in long-held myths.

    • Thank you for this comment, JT. It is probably one of the few really honest opinions that will be made today.

      • @Bill Bodden …I was almost going to say, “Glad to have been able to do a small service.” At least in the context of the very particular moment. As for the other “service” I got to do, not so much…

    • Thank you for this JTMcFee.
      And particularly for your “for the good of the Syndicate” summation.

      The jumping to successively weaker justifications by this writer helps illustrate another inescapable fact – there is a personal accountability and a personal price to pay for the taking of life. Politicians and corporate interests most responsible seldom pay. That is an honor reserved for the person pulling the trigger.

    • Illuminating find, JT. My ultimate horror is that if all dissenters against these wars finally succeeded in eradicating all the lies that enabled them, the ordinary, greedy, entitled American would simply resort to the final defense, exactly the words of this GI you quoted.

      Because at that point there is no argument left except that one day the world will unite against our crimes and destroy us.

      Consider if the public applied that same final defense to the possibility of global warming:

      To protect our prosperity, we will refuse to make any concession to reduce pollution, and play a game of chicken to make the weaker countries make all the sacrifices instead. And if they refuse, we will use our nuclear weapons to wipe out their societies and thus reduce their CO2 output while our continues unimpeded.

      Same logic, as long as we believe we can get away with it. If not, we lie low and bide our time. But we never learn the lessons that the Nuremburg trials and the post WW2 changes in international law were trying to teach: if offensive war profits anybody, we are all doomed.

      • Super, you’ve been around enough to know that Walt Kelly stated it for “us” so very succinctly a few decades back: We has met the enemy and he is us.” With extensions and footnotes: link to igopogo.com And before him Pope and Shakespeare and Plato and all those guys and gals with a smidgen or dollop or cartload of insight…

        This current Imperial Extravagance is just the latest, “greatest” exemplar. Complete with boffo apologists, malefactors, et al., and iStuffed all the way up the wazoo. Even the people who have “people” to do stuff for them,, to extend their grabbing hands and the reach of their blades, have discovered exactly how icy the glissade really is: link to kauffman.org

        The comforting myth, the one they tell babies to put them to sleep, is that It Won’t Happen To Us, Because WE Are SPECIAL!

        And besides, says mommy under her breath, I’ll be dead, comfortably dead, after a life of excess and excitement and titillation (not the same thing) thanks to that li’l ol’ bumper sticker proclamation, “WE’RE SPENDING OUR CHILDREN’S INHERITANCE!” Often seen on the capacious rump of a “Class A Motorhome” on its 1.5-mpg voyage to idiot irrelevance.

  7. Thank you for a reminder that one of our greatest writers and thinkers was also one of our first anti-war activists. One could argue, however, that he has an even deeper connection to some of the recent conflicts in which the U.S. has become ensnared: he was arguably the first American environmentalist, who wrote and celebrated the natural world around us. On Walden Pond has gone on to inspire numerous American writers to the present day, including numerous environmentalists, naturalists, assorted activists, and (now) even organic farmers. Concern for the environment can, in part, be traced back to him; what he would say today as we seek to control certain areas of the globe rich in fossil fuel (that drives global warming and environmental degradation) by the use of military force (hence Rumsfeld’s protection of the Iraq Oil Ministry but not its national museum with its precious archaeological collection), one can only guess. Civil disobedience, war, the appreciation and protection of the environment, all, in a sense, first came together in this remarkable writer, we sought “to live deliberately . . . to suck out all the marrow of life”.

  8. Let’s not forget Bertrand Russell’s sitting out the First World War in a British prison.

    Part of prison literature includes his “Introduction of mathematical Philosophy”

  9. 1. Ulysses S. Grant opposed the Mexican War as well (while not refusing to fight it, however; see his Memoirs on the war’s unjust and predatory nature).
    2. BUT: This part is all wrong: “In its original incarnation as a product of the Civil War, Memorial Day was divisive and triumphalist, a Northern institution. If it were more widely remembered that the day began with this focus, we might be less enthusiastic about it today. After all, we have mixed feeling about having fallen into civil war in the first place. Perhaps repurposing is central to our commemorations today.”

    No! It was PRECISELY the freed slaves’ celebration of the Union victory — meaning their own — that made it a valuable holiday and that should have been kept!

    I celebrate the Vietnamese victory over the French and US; the Soviets’ victory over fascist Germany; and so on. The problem with Civil War celebrations is that they equalize the two sides — which means, among other things, forgetting the incomplete nature of the Union victory (i.e. the abandonment of Reconstruction).

    • “the Soviets’ victory over fascist Germany”

      Although the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fighting on the Eastern Front (after having initially sat out the war under the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agreesion Pact, while Britain stood alone), the defeat of Germany was an Allied effort involving the United States, and Britain, as well as other allies. To say “the Soviets’ victory over fascist Germany” leaves out the other allies, who were just as important in winning the war. We could not have defeated Germany without the efforts of the Soviets, who did pay a much greater price, but the Soviets could not have done it alone either.

    • Juneteenth, a state holiday in 42 states, is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the US. It dates back to June 19, 1865, when the people of Texas were informed (2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation) that slavery was ended.

  10. I suppose it would be beyond the pale to have any sympathy, empathy, or remorse for those casualties on the other side of our illegal/immoral wars. Such emotions might poison our enthusiasm for future adventures, e.g. Iran, and eternal “network” demolition drone strikes.

    Maybe a moment of silence for “collateral damage” would make do.

    • Sherm,

      I think you should write your Senators and Congressperson and get on that. Again, it’s a day for those who served this nation in uniform and ultimately gave their lives for this country. It is audacious for ANYONE in this country to think that devoting one measly day a year is somehow to much to honor them and their sacrifice. If the majority of this nation felt that way it would indicate that the best amongst us fell in battle leaving behind pompous, pseudo-intellectual, oh-so-jaded brats who certainly weren’t worth sacrificing anything for much less their lives. Look at them and tell me how you or Dr. Cole or anyone else has the moral high ground over these young men whom I served with (partial list):
      link to thedestroyerschapter.com
      Please enlighten me with your keen insight and what must be a vastly superior intellect. When you’re done with that you should go tell their wives, children, parents, brothers, sisters, extended family and friends how this nation devoting one day is too much. Hell, it’s just another day off to most of the citizenry so what the hell does it matter why as long as folks can suck down hot dogs and guzzle beer like the gluttons most are.

      Sean

      • Sean,
        thanks for sharing that roll call.

        My first thought: Corps leaders are a lot smarter than Army leaders, insisting on 7-month rotations.

        Second thought: In a 7-month rotation at the height of the Iraq war, a typical Marine saw more combat than a typical Marine in the entire WW II War in the Pacific.

      • Sean, I think you wasted some very thoughtful insults. I certainly did not say or suggest anything negative or derogatory about Memorial day or military members. My subject is the almost total lack of concern for the unprovoked damage we do to countries and populations subjected to our illegal/immoral wars.

        I don’t think a “vastly superior intellect” is necessary to conclude that the unprovoked destruction of Iraq was a crime of monstrous proportions. Maybe just a little “do unto others…” introspection will suffice.

  11. It is a breath of fresh air to see this type of remembrance during this holiday weekend. I realize it is controversial to speak out against war on Memorial Day, however, I do agree with this writer’s sentiment in general. To those that think everyone who goes off to war is doing so thinking they are protecting freedom, think again. Many sign up for the service (even more so in this economy) because they have no other means to support themselves and cannot find work. Some go becuase it is the only way they can afford to receive a higher education. This country sends the children of the poor off to war…and as long as the classes are kept very separate and people cannot continue to pay bills and put food on the table more of our sons and daughters will sign up. It has become the last hope for employment and education for many. This fact makes me ill. People are willing to put their lives on the line to feed themselves and their families, or to be able to have the chance to attend college if they make it back so they can have something other than a min wage job. Not nearly as many sign up for the military for the reason of protecting us from the bogeyman as folks would like to think…of course after they go through basic training they may have been taught to feel that way. At least that helps them to ‘self preserve’ when they have to take another human’s life…until the PTSD kicks in.

    • You would be surprised how many Americans join the military, as both officers and enlisted men, out of a sense of duty and honor, as well as other things you mentioned: education, training, etc. After the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was a large uptick in numbers entering the military. In fact, I knew personally a retired Army officer who managed to get placed back on active duty because he felt the obligation to serve in uniform again to join the fight against Al-Qaeda.

      Nevertheless, regardless of the reason someone joins the military, if that person pays the last full measure one can pay in service to his country, it certainly is not asking too much to devote one day out of the year to commemorate him and his fallen comrades throughout America’s wars and conflicts.

      • Many joined the military because they believed the Bush administration’s fictitious claims about Saddam Hussein having WMDs and thought that Saddam was behind the 9/11/01 attacks. One such soldier was my son’s friend, who enlisted so that he could “avenge what Saddam did to us on 9/11.” Unfortunately, Thomas was killed by an IED in Tikrit.

  12. In my view, regardless of political positioning about any given war, it serves us well to honor any Citizen willing to first stand-up, then ultimately give their lives for what they believe wiill serve the greater good.

    • A lovely illustration of the conundrum. Honoring those willing to give and take lives for nothing approaching the actual greater good.

  13. You and your readers might want to take a look at John Pilger’s piece in today’s Guardian. It’s about the medical catastrophe – the cancers – “our” depleted uranium weapons have visited upon the Iraqi people.

  14. Just one last shot from me while there is still time.
    Captian Watada once said that you have to give higher ranking officers the benifit of the doubt but you do not have to give them a blank check. Over the past few weeks of pondering American history I now think that what Captain Watada said does not go nearly far enough. People in the military should not believe anything their chain of commnad tells them or do anything that their chain of command tells them to do unless the evidence supporting the chain of command is overwhelming.
    THe first step in repudiating bad behavior is not to keep repeating the same behavior over and over again. So it would seem to me that if Officers of the US military want to
    properly train an Army to defend a Republic and to maintain an empire they would train their subordiantes NOT TO TRUST their supirior officers and not even to respect them, but to be suspicious of their every move and to ask uncomftorable questions at every opportunity. Commanders should be challenged constantly from below and should be constantly harrassing those above them. With such policies we might actually produce some soldiers who are not complete idiots.
    Furthermore the Ameroican people should be taught the physical courage is not something to admire. It might be true that not every person has it. None the less human history shows that physcial courage is a commodity that is really not in short supply. For every person who has won a medal of homor there would have been dozens more who would have won it if they had not been killed first or if those who witnessed their actions had not been killed. So since
    Memorial Day just ended here. I can now close my post.

  15. Every year I am appalled when I hear people in the media telling their listeners and viewers to have a “Happy Memorial Day.” This year I decided to express my disgust publicly. Where have all the thinking people gone?

    • I, too, am disgusted with the “Happy Memorial Day” greeting, as it completely misses the meaning of the day. Most people are too busy indulging in hotdogs and beer to recognize that Memorial Day is the one day in the year that we should remember and honor those who paid the last full measure while serving the United States in uniform.

  16. One of the problems I have with commentaries on Memorial Day and Veterans Day is that so many people make categorical statements, mostly ascribing virtue to everyone in the military. It appears to be an immutable law that says that in any very large organization or community of people, such as the military and major religions, you will find the best and worst of people with most people somewhere in between. Another immutable law is that wars bring out the best and worst in people.

    Then there are the comments about military personnel sacrificing their lives for our freedom or some other alleged virtue. Some do die believing so, but most of the people who have died in our wars were sacrificed by others who started the wars or led the troops into them. There was a story I came across while reading about one of the two World Wars (I believe No. 1) in which a general was supposed to have said that he would give 30,000 men for some hill. Someone within hearing of that remark reputedly said discreetly, “Generous bastard, isn’t he?”

    With reference to WWI, the American, British, French and German generals knew at dawn on November 11, 1918 that an armistice was to be signed in a few hours at 11:00 am. The Germans mostly quit waiting for the end of hostilities. Our side decided to continue fighting until the last minute forcing the Germans to pick up their weapons and fight back. General Jack Pershing and Brig. Gen. MacArthur wanted to keep on fighting and to carry the war into Germany despite by that time around four million people had already lost their lives. And Blackjack Pershing was given a hero’s welcome with a parade down New York’s Broadway when the US Army returned home.

    • Actually the death toll was greater than 4 million.

      8.8 million were killed in action in WWI.

      President Wilson reportedly broke down and cried when he authorized the American Expeditionary Force to combat.

      The Americans provided an edge to the Allies that ended the war sooner.

      • “The Americans provided an edge to the Allies that ended the war sooner.”

        According to a historian I read the American entry into WWI might have extended the war. Apparently there was talk of a truce in mid-1917, but the British declined because they had an understanding that the US would join in and give them and the French the edge they needed to defeat the Germans. Had the US remained out of the conflict the European leaders might have declared a truce. Instead, everyone lost in the war except the United States.

        Smedley Butler expressed his opinion that the US got into the war to protect the money that Wall Street banks had loaned to Britain and France.

        • “According to a historian I read the American entry into WWI might have extended the war. Apparently there was talk of a truce in mid-1917, but the British declined because they had an understanding that the US would join in and give them and the French the edge they needed to defeat the Germans.”

          Three points here on the above-cited quote:

          A. No reputable historian claims there was any serious talk of a truce in mid-1917. Neither the British nor the French nor the Belgians were contemplating a truce, which would have left Germany occupying parts of France and Belgium, a condition they would have considered unacceptable.

          B. Everyone did not lose except the Americans. Certainly, the French and Belgians considered themselves winners, having withstood and defeated German aggression against their territory.

          C. It is sometimes forgotten that World War I, although initiated in large part by Germany, was not fought on one square inch of German territory. It was all fought on French and Belgian soil. (And in Russia in the East, until the Bolsheviks pulled out of the war.) At the time of the armistice, Germany had not experienced any foreign troops on its soil. Perhaps there should have been, in which case the popular myth among Germans that they had been “stabbed in the back” by their politicians might have been avoided.

        • The more one learns, assuming what one learns is the truth and complete and all that, an unnaturally and insupportably enormous assumption, the more one has to recognize that nothing, NOTHING, is ever what you think it is. Nothing happened the way “they” or “people” say, or even when, or by the means stated, or for what reasons, including the reasons of the people who are behind the people who are behind the people who are still behind the people who send the people to get still other people to do the stuff that you think was done, and are just absotively posilute you know why.

          Brownian motion. Sure makes it easy for the sneaks and jackals and tapeworms and “complex leaders” to do the stuff they so profitably and smugly and enjoyably do…

    • Scientists are now investigating whether the horrible flu pandemic that killed 100,000,000 people during and after WW1 was spread from British troops, to arriving American troops, and then to the German troops retreating before them, causing it to spread to the German civilian population and leading to the panicked collapse of Germany. That led in turn to the paranoid fantasies of Germans that they were betrayed, aiding the rise of Hitler and yet another war.

      Make what you will of that, but it shows how messy war is as a tool to achieve a “noble” end. British gold, American ambition, all serving a microscopic army more powerful than us all: a supervirulent strain of influenza. Maybe the flu won the war, and humans lost.

      • “No reputable historian claims there was any serious talk of a truce in mid-1917. Neither the British nor the French nor the Belgians were contemplating a truce, which would have left Germany occupying parts of France and Belgium, a condition they would have considered unacceptable.”

        The reference to the truce came from “In Flanders Fields” by Leon Wolff. This is from Wikipedia: “The research by Leon Wolff is quite extensive and exhaustive, given the year 1958, only 40 years after World War I whereupon he obviously tries to give a complete and nonpartisan account of the Flanders Campaign.”

        “Everyone did not lose except the Americans. Certainly, the French and Belgians considered themselves winners, having withstood and defeated German aggression against their territory.”

        When the British, French, Belgians and Germans lost millions of men from one generation and cost their treasuries incomprehensible sums of money, and France and Belgium suffered enormous destruction it is stretching the word to claim victory for them. They may have been able to dictate the terms of the armistice, but that victory was more Pyrrhic than anything else.

        “It is sometimes forgotten that World War I, although initiated in large part by Germany”

        E. D. Morel made a strong case that a lot of guilt for causing WWI can be laid before diplomats from Paris and London. I believe Adam Hochschild’s latest book “To End All Wars” is based on Morel’s work and his life.

  17. MLK Jr. was a huge factor in the Civil Rights movement, but it existed before he was born. He didn’t start it.

  18. The question is, must Memorial Day be a pro-war holiday (they died for a good cause), or an anti-war holiday (more will die if we don’t change)? If we can’t answer a simple question like that, then we must still fear that having too much of an anti-war attitude will harm our interests as a society.

    Right now, Paul Lukas over at http://www.uni-watch.com is continuing his stubborn crusade to stop sports teams from commemorating every damn holiday they can get their hands on as “Blind Military Worship Day”, mostly by wearing camouflage uniforms. This time it was really bad, with all baseball teams, even the team in Canada, re-coloring their team logos in US Marine-pattern camouflage. His arguments on the need to separate the dead from the glorification and normalization of war are eloquent and need our support.

    • “The question is, must Memorial Day be a pro-war holiday (they died for a good cause), or an anti-war holiday (more will die if we don’t change)?”

      It is neither. It simply remembers and honors those who perished, period.

  19. I think that was the good thing about Armistice Day, before it was converted into Veterans Day. “Armistice” = cease-fire. But that only worked because most of the dead of WW1 came from neighboring white Christian countries, and thus the survivors could see the other side as human beings. (“All Quiet on the Western Front” depicted German soldiers this way to Americans only 12 years after it ended.) Besides, the overwhelming waste of that war cast a pall on the leaders who normally use dead boys to glorify war. WW2 and the Cold War had radically different emotional dynamics.
    I’ve only seen one Hollywood movie that ever depicted our enemies in Vietnam in a human way (“The Iron Triangle”), and none for Korea or the wars on Moslems.

Comments are closed.