Before the memories of this weekend’s celebrations completely fade as we get back into the routine of work, I have some questions about Memorial Day that I think we all need to answer. Every year we hear the same catchphrases thrown around, like “freedom ain’t free” or “they died protecting our freedoms” or “thank our heroes in uniform” or “support the troops” or “thank you for your service” and so on, but there are assumptions underlying these that are seldom questioned. If they ever are questioned, they are always shouted down (usually by Christian conservatives, whose un-Christlike pro-war bent always surprises me) as being unpatriotic, un-American, treasonous, etc., just as I’m sure I’ll likely get shouted down for the remainder of this post. Please don’t get me wrong — I’m no Jane Fonda and do not support misdirecting anger over a corrupt government’s unjust war by spitting on or jeering at soldiers returning home. That sort of behavior is abhorrent, but it is a far cry from questioning the motivation for war or the validity of such slogans as those above.
So what I want to know is exactly which of my freedoms have our heroes in uniform died to protect recently? Did Afghanistan or Iraq invade Texas and try to conquer portions of American territory or enslave the Americans who lived there? In what way did Serbia or North Vietnam threaten our ability to speak or worship or assemble freely, to keep and bear arms, or to have privacy in our own homes and personal communications? If we had refrained from meddling in these foreign conflicts, would we really be less free than we are now?
For that matter, exactly how free are we, really? I am not free to get gay-married or eat pot brownies or own a fully-automatic machine gun, even though not one of these is inherently harmful to others. I have no privacy whatsoever from a snoopy NSA, and Christian conservatives of all people should know that we can’t say anything we want or worship however we want in deference to the doctrine of tolerance (which has morphed into more of a doctrine of acceptance and approbation than plain tolerance). No one can get married or start a business or buy a car or carry a pistol for self-defense without being forced to wait in long lines to buy permission from the government to do these things — permission that necessarily implies the government’s authority to refuse that permission for any reason it sees fit. Every moment of every one of our days is burdened with books upon books of regulations and numerous taxes severely curbing our economic freedom. We incarcerate by far a larger percentage of our population than any other country in the world — even “Communist China” or “Terrorist Iran” — and our police officers are generally permitted to kill us with impunity during a routine traffic stop (with some recent exceptions thanks to the proliferation of cell phone videos).
Does any of this sound like freedom worth dying for or worth losing our loved ones for? It is hard to accept that one’s son or husband or brother died a meaningless death defending freedoms that don’t exist from threats that don’t exist. It is easier to justify his death with some flippant platitude like “freedom isn’t free” and to label him a hero for “dying for his country”, but dying for one’s country isn’t the same as dying for freedom. More likely it means dying for the politician who made the decision to start the war, which in turn means dying to benefit the special interests who paid to get that politician elected. After all, if “making the world safe for democracy” is so important, why haven’t we invaded and obliterated North Korea? Surely Kim Jong-Un is no match for the largest military force in the world. Why are nation-building and instituting democracy and freeing oppressed peoples only important to do for oil-producing nations? Is it really a coincidence that 4,491 of our children were killed “freeing” a nation with some of the largest untapped oil reserves in a war started by a President who just happened to have significant connections to the oil industry, particularly in oil exploration?
Yes, it is hard to accept that our loved ones died pointless deaths solely for the financial benefit of oil tycoons, but until we accept it, we cannot change it. Our boys will continue to die by the thousands for equally meaningless causes as long as we praise them as heroes fighting for freedom and never question what freedoms they’ve actually preserved for us. Painful as it may be, if we want to save future American children from the same fate, we must acknowledge that our boys who have gone before them are not heroes and have not fought for noble causes — some of them may have truly believed they were fighting and dying for justice, and that perhaps is commendable, but in reality they are at best pawns manipulated by villainous politicians and special interests for financial gain, just as we are pawns when we unquestioningly weep and salute and cheer at the sight of a soldier on Memorial Day.