Monday, May 26, 2014

What we owe

I have some tough words to say this Memorial Day.

Since the founding of the Republic, more than 1.3 million Americans have given their lives in military service.

On this Memorial Day, we hear the giving of thanks for that service and sacrifice.  There are countless moments of silence.  Cameras pan across cemeteries, showing row upon row of white grave markers.  There are military flyovers and professional athletes sporting camouflage.  We stand exhorted to remember and respect those Americans who "died for our freedom" and those who are willing, but desperately hoping not, to do so now.

These platitudes are nice and necessary, but they are incomplete.

Words are meaningless without action to back them up.

We owe our war dead a debt, but it is not a question of thanks.

It is in the first instance a commitment to ensure that those we send to fight and, if necessary, to die for our country do so because their sacrifice is worth the price they pay.  In World War II, it was easy to see the necessity.  The forces of fascism had marched relentlessly across Europe and Asia.  Powerful enemies were bent on world domination through aggressive war.  Since then, it has been less clear that our military entanglements were necessary, but our actions in Korea and Vietnam were at least driven by the perceived need to oppose the creeping influence of communism.

I am not certain that communism presented the existential threat that it was made out to be, and our opposition to it produced some of the ugliest moments in our history, but we were understandably cautious about the influence of the Soviet Union after our experience with Germany and Japan.

I am certain, however, that our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has not advanced any material interest of the United States--not even our broader interests in democracy and other human rights.  All things considered, I believe I'd rather have the 6500 service members we've lost there.  They didn't fail, nor did the many thousands of others who served there.  But they were given a fuzzy objective with little care paid to what would happen, both as they fought and after they left.  That's a failure of leadership.  We owe them an apology.

The second thing we owe to the members of the military, who have given so much, is to fulfill the promises made to them.  When it is provided, the Department of Veterans' Affairs provides excellent care and benefits.  But the VA is chronically underfunded and hamstrung by red tape.  No one who has been paying attention is surprised at the recent scandal about waiting periods for care. 

Even more, however, we owe it to returning service members to take care of their needs--fully--when they return.  The fog of war produces casualties of many types.  We ask our military men and women to do awful, dangerous things in our name, then fail to recognize the impact of those awful things on their mental health.  Veterans come home to joblessness and hopelessness, to broken relationships, to an America full of people who lack understanding of what they've been through because we have not shared in their sacrifice.  It should be no surprise that their unemployment rate is so high, that their divorce rate is so high, that their suicide rate is so high.

We owe them the care we promised them.

The third debt we owe these million-plus Americans is a debt we owe to ourselves and to future generations.  All of these deaths, these glorious and romantic and honorable deaths, are meaningless if we don't fulfill our promise.  In 1787, when the Constitution was being drafted, the framers decided on a preamble that set forth why they were writing this document:

We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We have not always lived up to the promise of that sentence.  Sometimes, our failure to live up to it has been spectacular.  But I prefer to think of our history as being one in which we push out the frontiers of freedom, little by little.

In some ways, we're still doing that.  There is a growing recognition in this country of homosexual rights, and although there are battles to fight on that front, the ending is plain to see.  But we also seem to have forgotten that our government was set up not merely to secure our liberty but also to secure the blessings of that liberty for present and future Americans.  It means nothing to be free if that freedom cannot be enjoyed because of hunger or homelessness.  It means nothing to be free if you are forced by hard economic times into an ever-decreasing set of rewards for an ever-increasing work schedule.

It means nothing to be free if you have no realistic hope for a better life.

When wealth is increasingly concentrated among the few; when that wealth is seen as, and protected as, speech; when arguments are made in favor of treating corporations the same as living, breathing people; when one party has become so embittered at its losing share in elections that it grinds the entire lawmaking process to a halt and cynically focuses its efforts on depriving minorities of their vote; then it becomes reasonable to question what exactly our brave men and women in uniform are fighting and dying for.

If we aren't still dedicated to promoting the general welfare, what's the point? 

What we choose to do with this thing that so many Americans have fought and died to protect is our living memorial to their sacrifice.  So unless you are prepared to hold your representatives accountable to our most important promise, keep to yourself your platitudes about remembering those who died in war.  Words mean nothing in the end.

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