Memory and Memorial Day

One day a year is set aside to honor and remember the ultimate sacrifice made by members of our nation's armed forces in the wars and conflicts since 1776 and the Revolution. Many, if not most or even all of us, do respect that duty and the price paid by those for the most part ordinary citizens who became extraordinary when they answered their country's call.

A question they may subconsciously be asking themselves is whether or not they would have been willing to make the same sacrifice, had they been placed in that same position. It has been often noted by writers, historians and chroniclers of warfare that those in combat fight and die first and foremost to protect and help their comrades in arms, not for lofty principles of liberty and freedom. And yet, in the end, that is what their sacrifice is largely about - giving it all up so that others can live in relative freedom, make their own choices about life, and criticize the government without fear of going to jail. Those are things you can do in many parts of the world, but not everywhere. You can here, because of the people who died for us. We find it easy to acknowledge and honor the sacrifice of individuals we may know of. And it's crucial that we do so, for our own sake as well as those who gave all. Remembrance of service rendered, and sacrifices borne take on additional meaning when considered within the broader historical record.

Were the policies of the government that ordered military personnel into harm's way worthy of that sacrifice? Do many of us even know or understand the complexities, on a lay person's level at least, of why those people came to be in harm's way when they did, at that particular moment? Warfare is a legitimate and sometimes absolutely necessary extension of statecraft. Some conflicts make more sense than others. World War II is probably the last morally and strategically unambiguous war the U.S. has been involved in. That doesn't lessen or diminish in any way the sacrifices made by those who served in Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War and in more recent times, Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other conflicts in places like Grenada or Somalia. Our understanding of their sacrifice is deepened when we also remember the context.

President Obama has come in for harsh criticism from certain quarters by being a reluctant warrior when it came to crises in recent years in places like Syria and Libya. The two cases are different. Libya, which burst into violence in 2011 during the short-lived "Arab Spring" is still struggling to establish itself in a post-Qaddaffi world. There are still massive problems there, but a multi-lateral coalition of forces eased the strongman out and gave Libyans a chance for a better life, if they can seize it. The jury is still out.

Last August, when confronted with the thuggish Syrian government crossing a "red line" when caught red handed gassing its own citizens amid a humanitarian catastrophe of the first order, the President punted. Rather than back up his own words, he took advantage of a Russian brokered deal to get the poison gas weapons out of Syria and the hands of that sad nation's military and political leaders.

Should we have punished them militarily instead? Possibly. More than 130,000 Syrians are believed to have died since 2011. That's a shocking fact. Will future generations wonder why we did relatively little to stop the carnage? Did the President send a confused message when the "red line" was crossed, which other nations (like Russia in the Ukraine) interpret to mean our exhaustion around intervening in global problems is complete?


What will the Chinese government do if they decide a group of small islands between mainland China and Japan are important enough to risk a full-blown international crisis over? We may get to find out before year's end. Or sooner, if the oil rig they parked off the coast of Vietnam keeps things simmering in the South China Sea.

All these global strategic questions though, fundamentally involve sending (mostly young) men and women into harm's way if modifying other nation's behavior is the sought-after goal. Those quick to call for armed intervention should ask themselves, "what if it were a member of my family, or myself, who was asked to risk life and limb?" The issues take on a different perspective. That's not to say they shouldn't be sent into harm's way. But let's also understand the price tag.

It is not an option for the U.S. to go isolationist and let global currents take their course without our involvement. Sooner or later, a festering problem in some remote part of the world - like Afghanistan in the 1990s which allowed space for Al Qaeda to prosper, or Mali or Nigeria today - comes home to roost. The consequences of getting those kinds of decisions wrong are massive and often unforeseeable. The common thread is that they involve a likelihood of adding to the number of people we are asked to remember on Memorial Day.

It is through history, and trying to make sense of it, that the sacrifices we honor on Memorial Day and hopefully throughout the rest of the year reveal their full meaning. We should be concerned if the historical memory is forgotten, misunderstood, or disregarded as irrelevant.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said once that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. We honor both our fellow citizens who fell in combat, and ourselves, by arming ourselves against such amnesia.


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