The frustration I experience with dishonest politics reached a peak with Memorial Day this year. I saw protest signs and memes to the effect of: “Some gave all. All gave something. Trump gave nothing.” While it perfectly captured my frustration, it was oversimplified and failed to articulate the real failures.
Donald Trump, who dodged the draft with alleged bone-spurs, simultaneously gets it right and wrong. War is ugly and Vietnam was Kissinger’s and Nixon’s crime against humanity. I will not condemn anyone for refusing to carry out misdeeds. The problem is that he refused for the wrong reasons— cowardice and selfishness. A moral being does not say, as Trump has, that dodging STDs was his own personal Vietnam. A moral being might more closely resemble Anthony Bourdain who said, “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.” Not that I condone violence, I just understand that witnessing the aftermath and trauma from violence and war—even decades later—present existential challenges that shake a person to the core.
For more than a decade I have taught students receiving post 9-11 GI Bill access to higher education. Many of these students have shared sentiments: “You’re the first civilian I’ve ever felt comfortable sharing these stories with” or “I wish everyone was as open minded about these things as you are.” By the end of the term they let me know, “I fought in the war, but now I understand why,” which I consider the highest praise.
I think it is collective bad memory that makes it possible for Bush, then Obama, then Trump to ignore the consequences of waging war, and for society as whole to do so too.
Lip service is paid to the fallen on Memorial Day, but any correction to the mythology being presented is almost immediately con fallen demned. Why is that? Why do we allow politicians to use sacrifice for political stunts but cower the moment that the politics responsible for the sacrifice are exposed?
Trump himself challenged that Obama would start a war with Iran to boost his ratings. He now beats the drums of war—with Iran. I think we can safely guess that he believes it would provide a boost to his ongoing failures. Great diplomatic efforts have been sabotaged and undermined in literally every global arena he has entered. But while blowing up the Iran Deal was sheer lunacy, nothing shows his shortsightedness more than his trade war with China; China did not become a powerhouse by brokering good deals, they did so by using their peace dividend to invest on development and infrastructure. Imagine if the US had spent trillions of dollars on education, infrastructure, and technology instead of war?
The empty ceremonies for the lives cut short could actually mean something; when people actually care, the ceremonies matter. The surest sign of sincerity—good memory—is evidenced by how a person treats the living. People who care about those who sacrifice might care more about my veteran students with PTSD and permanent disabilities. Maybe the VA is adequately funded, but Medicaid and Medicare (sources of healthcare for more than half of veterans) are not. Over a million veterans’ households receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), programs that have been cut by the current President’s budget.
Politicians who really care about honor and commitment are taking steps to combat homelessness. More than 40,000 veterans were homeless in 2017.
The bottom line is this: Memorial Day serves as another mechanism for avoiding the true costs of war. By keeping the “perceived” costs down politicians are able to garner more support for their violent campaigns. Truly honoring the fallen requires being the kind of person worth fighting for, and that kind of person does not send children to die when it can be avoided. I refuse to accept that moral amnesia honors anyone who died as a sacrifice for the freedoms of others; we can do much better than this.
Wim Laven, Ph.D., is syndicated by PeaceVoice, and is an instructor of Political Science and International Relations at Kennesaw State University.