Memorial Day for all
I have little to add to what I said the past four years on Memorial Day, which this year is tomorrow. So I am republishing what I wrote originally in 2011 with slight updates and two short additional paragraphs:
I spent my high school years marching in the Memorial Day parade in New Rochelle, New York and have never lost respect for those who serve and make sacrifices in uniform. Even as an anti-war protester in the Vietnam era, I thought denigration of those in uniform heinous, not to mention counterproductive.
It is impossible to feel anything but pride and gratitude to those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama, Somalia, Kuwait and Iraq during the previous decade. Nor will I forget my Memorial Day visit to the American cemetery in Nettuno accompanying Defense Secretary Les Aspin in the early 1990s, or my visit to the Florence cemetery the next year. These extraordinarily manicured places are the ultimate in peaceful. It is unimaginable what their inhabitants endured. No matter what we say during the speechifying on Memorial Day, there is little glory in what the troops do and a whole lot of hard work, dedication, professionalism and horror.
That said, it is a mistake to forget those who serve out of uniform, as we habitually do. Numbers are hard to come by, but a quick internet search suggests that at at least 2000 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus quite a few “third country” nationals. They come in many different varieties: journalists, policemen, judges, private security guards, agriculturalists, local government experts, computer geeks, engineers, relief and development workers, trainers, spies, diplomats and who knows what else. I think of these people as our “pinstripe soldiers,” even if most of them don’t in fact wear pinstripes. But they are a key component of building the states that we hope will some day redeem the sacrifices they and their uniformed comrades have endured.
We are losing that long war. Not because our soldiers lack courage or technology, but rather because our civilian instruments for preventing war and rebuilding afterwards are inadequate. There will be no victory in Libya, Syria or Yemen without the effective civilian instruments needed to restore some kind of inclusive governance to states torn apart by uncivil war.
Host country civilians killed in all these conflicts far outnumber the number of Americans killed, by a factor of 100 or more. Numbers this large become unfathomable. Of course some–and maybe more–would have died under Saddam Hussein, the Taliban or Muammar Qaddafi, but that is not what happened. They died fighting American or Coalition forces, or by accident, or caught in a crossfire, or trying to defend themselves, or in internecine violence, or because a soldier got nervous or went berserk, or….
Memorial Day in this age of “war among the people” should be about the people, civilian as well as military, non-American as well as American, not only about the uniform, the flag or the cause.