Thursday, May 30, 2013

A non-exclusive Memorial Day

We do a good job at remembering our troops, but we forget the civilian casualties and all too often fail to recognize the humanity of the “enemy.”

By Jon Overton

Memorial Day services usually consist of the great fanfare of the band triumphantly playing patriotic marches, uniformed men sharing heroic war stories atop a podium, and countless solemn prayers honoring men and women in the United States Armed Forces who died in combat.

But of course, in war, there is no band that plays soul-stirring marches and hymns while troops carry out legendary acts of heroism. There are likely plenty of prayers, though many of them occur amidst the carnage, bombed out ruins, and in medical tents; I imagine relatively little of it goes on in green, well-tended cemeteries.

The American public’s perception of war is essentially shaped by what it sees in movies starring John Wayne and services like those held on Memorial Day.

All most of us really know about war boils down to pomp, circumstance, and stories of heroics.

Warfare is extremely rare on American soil. Although 9/11 was arguably an act of war (Osama bin Laden had declared a holy war on the United States) and that attack inflicted serious trauma on the national consciousness, most of us still know little about war. The last time a sizable portion of the United States directly experienced such conflict was during the Civil War — about 150 years ago.

While I agree that fallen American soldiers’ sacrifice is worth acknowledging, what about the troops many of them killed? Aren’t they real people too? Is their suffering any less horrific than what our side suffers? Don’t they have families at home? Overall, are they any less worthy of our sympathy? Were they not fighting and dying either because they were drafted and had no choice or chose to defend what they believed in — just like our troops?

Arlington  National  Cemetery,  where
many  American  troops 
in combat
 are buried, is seen.                   (IPN file photo)
And what of civilian casualties? Why do we not grieve for them on Memorial Day? Most civilian deaths in recent history were not from the United States, but they’re still humans and their deaths are no less tragic than those of American troops. If we mourn bystanders killed resulting from gang violence, why do we not mourn civilians caught in the crossfire or those who were brutally massacred?

Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist (person who studies atrocities) wrote that war actually kills far more civilians than soldiers.

“ ... even if civilians are not systematically massacred, they are usually robbed, evicted or left to starve; however, their stories are usually left untold. Most military histories skim lightly over the massive suffering of the ordinary, unarmed civilians caught in the middle, even though theirs is the most common experience of war.”

We usually don’t focus on the deaths of civilians or enemy troops probably because that contradicts how we see our role in the world.

So long as American soldiers are spreading the gospel of freedom and democracy across the world, combatting evil and tyranny wherever it may be, all is well. But once we acknowledge that our brave men and women in uniform have killed equally valuable human beings, the picture becomes murky as simplistic caricatures melt away. American troops stop being immaculate white knights and become ordinary people. The “enemy” stops being made up entirely of Hitleresque Nazis, savage Injuns who scalp their victims, or the semi-robotic, endless horde of Japs. They become humans, no different from us.

The loss of life and suffering that war inflicts is nothing short of tragic. We must remember that. We must remember that war is not a glorious moral crusade against the forces of evil with a Sousa march playing in the background. It is a grotesque hell from which most of its participants, either voluntary or involuntary will come out scarred either physically or psychologically if they survive at all.

The value of human life is immeasurable. Even if we feel that there is such a thing as a “just war” or someone was truly evil and had to die for justice or for others’ protection, we can still feel sorrow that a human life was wasted. Let’s not just mourn our servicemen and women killed in action, but civilians caught in the middle and, yes, even “enemy” troops.

We need a non-exclusive Memorial Day, one that acknowledges the death and suffering of everyone involved in combat. Perhaps then, we can get a better grasp on what war is really like and realize that the human toll is often far more costly than it’s worth.

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