Like almost all Americans, I pay little heed to the stated purpose behind its designated holidays. I don’t get all flush with patriotic fervor and gratitude for the troops on either Memorial or Veteran’s Day. I don’t give thanks for much of anything on Thanksgiving, except that there is football on the tube to distract me from having to interact with the lunatics in my extended family. I don’t notice President’s Day or Columbus Day at all, except that my kids are out of school and so I have them to contend with, and for no apparent reason, in the middle of February and October, respectively.
I wonder, how could one really celebrate President’s Day? And which President would be worthy of celebration? All of them? Only the “good” ones? Who decides which is a good one, and which is a bad one? Isn’t one’s opinion of a President heavily impacted by the political view one has of him? It seems everything is inherently political, but I loathe politics. I think the President’s Day holiday is only for two or three of the Presidents—maybe Washington and Lincoln (and maybe one other, but if so, my memory fails me as to whom). But what is there to celebrate about either of Washington or Lincoln? I don’t ascribe to the linear, Great Man view of history, so I don’t believe the history of the republic would have been much different had neither ever lived. The men may have been admirable human beings, but only they and God really know if that’s the case. My political views and theirs might have been similar or different, but it seems to me what is really being celebrated is the American narrative of its own greatness, and its Manifest Destiny to encircle the globe with its empire, and I don’t ascribe to those ideas either. In the constant cycling of history, America has always been inevitable, but not because she was ordained to greatness by some personal god of her own creation. Rome was inevitable, too. And so was its fall.
Memorial Day is purportedly for remembering all the ones that gave the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. But how many of the war dead actually died defending American freedom? Considering that since America’s inception, there have been only three wars fought on its soil, and one was a Civil War in which the freedom to decide to belong or not to the Union was being vociferously attacked as repugnant to, well, freedom, there haven’t been all that many. The World Wars weren’t about American freedom. By the time of the wars, no European state since Britain in the War of 1812 had the temerity to threaten American freedom. Korea wasn’t about American freedom. It was about exactly where the limits of the newly-expanded American empire would lie. Vietnam was nothing more than a gummed-up series of unfortunate decisions. The Cold War was a real threat to American freedom, as it is hard to be free and dead at the same time, or maybe death is the ultimate freedom, as it really is the only time when there is nothing left to lose. But the Cold War was mainly cold. There were few casualties. Indeed, the Soviet Union had the firepower to annihilate America. But not without annihilating itself, and so it didn’t annihilate America, proving once and for all that nations are as cravenly rational as any other creature in nature.
It’s easy to see that Iraq I and II, and Afghanistan, have not been about protecting America’s freedom, unless it is considered that freedom for Americans depends on freely-flowing oil and commerce the globe over. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the only freedom the US military has protected for its citizens is the freedom of American capitalists to manufacture, buy and sell goods and services across the globe. It may be that domestic American freedoms—those ten values enshrined in the Bill of Rights that curiously don’t mention “cheap oil” or “trinkets and baubles from China” as necessary accouterments—would be impaired if international commerce were impaired. But there’s no way to know if they would, as limiting defensive measures to America’s shores has never been tried. Save the Civil War, which was the bloodiest of all the conflicts (so far as Americans are concerned) whose dead are memorialized on the last Monday in May, and was the original impetus for the holiday, but at first only to remember the Union’s war dead, the vast bulk of Americans who died in the service of their country did so on foreign shores, protecting someone’s freedom, perhaps, but not the freedom of Americans. Neither Germany nor Japan nor Spain nor Mexico nor any other of the litany countries against which America fought wars and must now memorialize its war dead, save Britain and the Soviet Union, ever posed a viable threat to the US Constitution.
All this is not to say that America is not worthy of defending, nor to denigrate the sacrifices of those who died in her service. Even with all the encroachments on the Bill of Rights that post 9-11 hysteria engendered, and that the financial crisis magnified, America still is a place where its citizens are mostly allowed to wage their existential battles on their own terms. And it is hardly the fault of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice that a great measure of them did so not for the republic’s defense, but for the selfish interests of politicians and the powerful interests for whom they work.
It’s not surprising that the US romanticizes the contributions of its warriors. The need for protection from external threats and the necessity for internal order compelled mankind, shortly after the dawn of the sedentary agricultural-based economic organization upon which civilization is founded, to organize society into nations and states. Both the need for protection and for internal security depended for their realization upon the contributions of an exalted warrior class. The efficiencies gained in cooperative defense and uniform and stable internal communications compelled nations and states to coalesce into empires; likewise, the history of every empire turned on its ability to provide protection and impose internal order. It is no surprise then that in every empire in every age, the military virtues of self-sacrifice, courage, obedience, etc., have been highly valued. The American Empire is not, contrary to her legions of nativist apologists, exceptional in that regard.
Neither is the American compulsion to continual conflict remarkable in the annals of history. The Aztecs explicitly sought conflict in order to ensure its warriors maintained their fighting edge. They also believed that their sun god required continual human sacrifice in order that it would not refuse to shine, which seems strangely reflected in America’s apparent belief that its empire must offer the same sort of human sacrifice to justify and sanctify its continued existence, but in the form of fallen warriors operating on its vanguards. The apparent compulsion has the same feel as the Romantic impulse that fueled the carnage in the Civil War, where the depth with which one felt devotion to the cause provided singular proof of its validity. The willingness of rank and file Southerners to die in a war to benefit their social superiors proved, for them, the depth of feeling they had, and thereby the validity and correctness of the cause. In the modern iteration of the notion, it’s as if Americans say to themselves, “So long as people are fighting and dying for America, for whatever reasons and never mind that it’s not something I’d much be willing to do, then my loyalty and regard for America’s continuation must be worthwhile.”
When I was a soldier, and young, I held something of similar emotional attachment to the American enterprise, and the freedoms it represented, especially relative to the possible alternatives. My zeal for America was nurtured by what I and most of the rest of Americans considered was an existential threat to her continuation—the old Soviet Union, bristling with nuclear-tipped missiles and nuclear-armed submarines, just like America. As naïve as it might sound, I actually believed that the fall of the Soviet Union would turn America away from what I felt was its then-justified militarism. Less than two years later, I realized, as I watched, from atop an Arabian Desert sand berm, B-52’s rain death and destruction on Iraqi soldiers arrayed in battle lines before me, that the Soviet Union’s existential nuclear threat amounted to not much more than a convenient foil upon which American politicians could justify force projection the globe over. America would never withdraw and disengage, defending only her shores, killing only when necessary and not at her own whim, until she had to. So I left the service, a decision I have never regretted.
The only of the American holidays I find worthwhile to acknowledge in my heart is the one celebrating its founding colonists’ ratification of a seminal document in human, not just American, history, whose second sentence reads like this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It is such a simple and bold statement of the ethical foundation for government. It draws from the wisdom of the ages to resonate with profound insight and truth about the human condition. But in neither America, nor anywhere else, has its application ever been fully accomplished, or even tried. To achieve true, inspired enlightenment, but prefer to exist in darkness—that is America’s ultimate tragedy, which no amount of memorializing and bestowing of honor upon her heroes can ever set right. I’m an Independence Day sort of guy, but acknowledging the triumph of the Declaration is an affair tinged with sobering regret for me, a forlorn reckoning that the promise remains unfulfilled, and appears always will.