This is in many respects the most ironic of American holidays (with the possible exception of the orgy of consumption commemorating the birth of that preeminent anti-consumer, Jesus Christ). Established to honor those fallen in war, Memorial Day has become a signpost to the advent of the langorous season of summer, marked by such un-martial and non-sacrificial past-times as beachcombing and barbecuing. Certainly some have argued that these activities are among the blessings of liberty and prosperity for which American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have sacrificed. But that's too easy a rationalization, much like George W. Bush's injunction after 9/11 that Americans could best fight terrorism by shopping and traveling.
Many of us have reason on Memorial Day to remember family members of the distant or recent past who have died in combat. And all of us should spend at least a few moments thinking about the countless, often nameless young men (and increasingly, young women) who were sent into the shadow of the Valley of Death on our behalf, and never came back.
But we should also think about the responsibility we have as citizens to make such journeys uneccesary: to create a world where young people don't have to go into strange lands and enter the ultimate lottery of random injury and death, usually at the hands of enemies they hardly see.
Those of us who are indifferent to politics and civic life should reflect on the simple fact that virtually every war reflects the failure of politics and civic life; the breakdown of peaceful arrangements painfully developed over time; and the incompetence or ideological excesses of politicians on one or both sides of most wars.
I won't go into a long history of modern wars, but think about this:
The deadliest war in American history was the Civil War, which was touched off not by impersonal forces or irrepressible socio-cultural conflicts, but by the self-absorbed idiocy of a few hotheads in South Carolina, drunk on the prose of Sir Walter Scott, who dragged their region and ultimately their country into a battle over the doomed and evil institution of slavery.
And the deadliest World War (at least for combatants), World War I, was a maddeningly pointless war caused by the incompetence of politicians and diplomats who developed a pattern of alliances that gave a handful of Serbian nationalists and Austrian militarists the ability to pull five continents into the trenches.
The great military strategist Clausewitz once memorably defined war as "politics continued by other means." A better definition would be that war is the failure of politics continued by other means.
So as we honor those who have died for America in good and ambiguous wars, for clear and hazy purposes, let's remember this: we owe each and every one of our fallen heroes, and those we place in harm's way today, a politics aimed at making these sacrifices less numerous, and at reducing the sway of homicidal folly in the politics of every country on earth. That may well mean a more active and even militant U.S. foreign policy. But it definitely means we must, in honor of our heroes past, present and future, remain vigilant against the folly that great superpowers so often embrace. --