Memorial Day brings a flood of memories. Our little town always has a parade down Main Street, with floats on the back of farm trucks, the band from the local high school, and our town’s fire trucks, freshly washed and waxed. At the end of the parade, everyone gathers at a monument to our town’s veterans, someone gives a speech, a wreath is laid, a trumpeter plays taps, the flag is lowered to half-mast. Then, the local Grange has a BBQ with free ice cream for the kids. It is very Norman Rockwell.
Memorial Day began as a holiday after the Civil War. It was known as Decoration Day and, as the name suggests, was about decorating the graves of Civil War veterans. The Spanish-American War produced few casualties, but then World War I and World War II and the Korean War and the Vietnam War and the Gulf War all conspired to turn the twentieth century into the bloodiest of centuries. Science, with all of its promise and its obvious capacity for ameliorating human suffering, also came to the assistance of Mars, the god of war, and unleashed horrors previously unimaginable. It is a sad fact about human affairs, but a fact nonetheless, that any new invention can be turned to the pursuit of evil as well as good, and the twentieth century is so filled with evidence for this fact that we can rightly adhere to the patristic habit of calling this fact original sin.
Thankfully, as a nation, we have learned to distinguish between honoring war and honoring veterans. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was not always thus. The fierce emotions the Vietnam War enkindled spilt over into the way people considered our U.S. military men and women. People who came to distrust and despise Gen. Westmoreland took out their anger not on the generals, who were remote and inaccessible, but on the simple men and women who had carried out Westmoreland’s orders. People who chant against LBJ and Nixon, but they could not do so personally, and so they chose to ignore, or minimize or even spit upon the sacrifices of the veterans who had no part in starting the war and no influence to stop it. And, let’s be honest: most of the venom hurled at veterans of Vietnam came from the left side of the political spectrum.
If the Left was right to oppose the war, it was wrong to blame the veterans for the war and to minimize, ignore or castigate their service. Vietnam created deep divisions within America, and it made those divisions more raw than at anytime since the Civil War.
Debate continues about who was to blame for getting us into Vietnam, with different historians apportioning blame amongst Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, the generals, the CIA. And, of course, Ho Chi Minh deserves some of the blame too. And the French. That debate will go on for a very long time. But, the belief that it was permissible to deflect one’s anger about the war on to returning veterans, that belief has been exposed as a national heresy and rightly so. The decision to go to war, and decisions about how to conduct a war, are fundamentally political decisions and it is the politicians who must be held accountable. Soldiers and seamen and airmen and marines who answer their country’s call to service should be above reproach, and virtually without exception, most commentators and all politicians have come to recognize the extraordinary sacrifices these men and women make.
At a time of intense political polarization, it is a small sign of hope that the Vietnam War no longer divides the country and no longer divides communities, it only divides historians. At a time when there is great debate about our nation’s future, it is welcome to see that one horrific injustice, treating our veterans without respect, is no longer acceptable. President Obama and the First Lady have been exceedingly supportive of, and attentive to, veterans’ issues and have finally eradicated any lingering sensibility in the Left that veterans are somehow suspect. In this sense, at least, the President has brought healing to the nation.
Now, it is time to seek another point of national agreement regarding veterans. Not only must they be respected, there must be fewer of them. As the U.S. involvement in Iraq comes to a close and the war in Afghanistan winds down, it is time to build a consensus around the proposition that the recourse to war must always be a last resort. This is a long-standing principle of Just War theory, but one that has been neglected in recent years. I honor the Christian witness of pacifists, but cannot bring myself to join them. In a dangerous world, with evil people, there are still times when a call to arms is a just call. But, it is a call that should only be uttered when all possible avenues of negotiation and compromise have been exhausted. There are also instances, Libya being a prime example, in which military assistance short of boots-on-the-ground is more efficacious, even of military objectives, than sending in the 101st Airborne. The on-going massacre within Syria cries out for similar efforts to eject an evil regime, cognizant of the fact that Assad and his henchmen will not go quietly but cognizant, also, that sending in U.S. troops will prolong the suffering of the Syrian people, not alleviate it.
The effort to seek a more peaceful future is not an easy one and it will not be achieved this weekend. Monday, Memorial Day, is not a time to plan but a time to remember. I will not be in my small Connecticut town on Monday. I will not be at the parade. I will not enjoy the BBQ chicken at the Grange. But, I will cut some flowers from my garden and bring them to the veterans’ monument near my home and be grateful for the sacrifices of those who have worn the uniform of the United States, even while I grieve that so many lives, military and civilian, have been lost. I will do what we all should do – remember them and their sacrifices, and commend them to God and to a now universally grateful nation.