Reflections on Memorial Day

I write this on May 24, the eve of Memorial Day, the day set aside to commemorate Americans who have died while in military service. This day was originally created (the first commemoration was May 30, 1868) to honor Union soldiers of the War Between the States, and was later expanded after World War I to include all those who have died in military service. Typically, commemorations can be expected to include much in the way of what is considered “patriotic” music (more accurately described as nationalistic), along with tributes themed along the lines of thanking those “who fight for our freedoms.” This spills over into Sunday services of many churches around the nation, when the emphasis temporarily focuses away from the praise of God and the proclamation of the Gospel, towards one of military service and national greatness. Such nationalistic celebrations mixed into the divine worship can be rightly disconcerting to many Christians, especially when the church seems to take the role of glorifying war and agression in the name of national greatness and patriotism. None of this is to disparage a proper honoring of those who have died in military service to our country, but rather, to issue a call to think more deeply about the implications of war and its consequences, in the interests of a more purposeful commemoration of Memorial Day. Common assumptions about war and patroitism, often based on fallacies, must be challenged if the true purpose of Memorial Day is to be rightly fulfilled.

First, there is the notion that equates patriotism with nationalism, leading to an attitude of supporting, out of a perceived “patriotic” duty, any decision made by the state to send military personnel into active duty. It is said that to oppose such decisions, or to not yield unquestioning support to such decisions, is to be “unpatriotic”. True patriotism, however, largely understood to mean the love of one’s country, should not be confused with nationalism, which is really a collectivist ideology that glorifies the nation-state. Second, the notion that equates “support for the troops” with unyeilding support for the decisions of the state has to be challeged. A decision by the state to send troops into harms way for a purpose which has nothing to with defending the country from an invasion or an attack cannot be seen as being in the best interests of the troops, or of the country.

Patriotism and support for the troops does not mean support for flawed policies that put the troops in harms way for purposes other than defending the people in the homeland. Christians who also consider themselves as patriots (defined as those who love this country and its founding ideals), have a duty to speak out against policies that lead to war that does not meet the criteria of the Just War Theory of Christianity (as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, among others). Non-Christians can likewise share in the moral principles of the Just War Theory. It can be credibly argued, with a careful study of history, that all of the wars involving the United States since its establishment under the Constitution could have been avoided, not the least among them being the War Between the States (a tragic chapter in U.S. history). The case can be made likewise that none of these wars fits into criteria of the Just War Theory (even perhaps, though not without difficulty, including World War II).

The U.S. Constitution vests in the Congress the power and authority to declare war. The President has no authority to under the Constitution to make war without  a declaration from Congress. The truth is that, since World War II, none of the wars to which we have sent soldiers to fight have been declared by Congress. Open-ended congressional resolutions  giving the President the discretion to commit troops to combat hostilities as he sees fit do not fit the legal requirements of a declaration of war. Congress has, in effect, abdicated its constitutional prerogatives over war powers. We have seen the tragic results of undeclared wars, from Korea and Vietnam to the present wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These wars have been needlessly divisive and painful for the American people. No war should be fought that cannot be supported by the people. This is precisely the reason the framers of the Constitution vested the authority of war powers in the Congress. The President is not a King.

An often-overlooked aspect to war is that liberty suffers at home, even while we are told that the troops are being sent to “fight for our freedoms.” History is replete with examples of this, including Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the War Between the States, Roosevelt’s establishment of Japanese internment camps during World War II (with the help of a complicit Congress), the authorization of military conscription during most of the wars, and the abuses we have found in recent years (suspension of Habeas Corpus, establishment of military tribunals, the use of torture in secret prisons, and so on). War also endangers the economic health of the country, driving up debt and often leading to the devaluing of the currency (as we are seeing right now with the current financial crisis).The ironic reality is that the state looks for every opportunity to use war as an excuse to erode liberty at home, while sending troops overseas not to protect liberty, but to maintain and extend a world empire in the name of “national greatness.”

If we are to appopriately honor those who have died in military service to our country, it is important to face the unpleasant truth that, all too often, our troops have been sent to fight in wars that have little or no relevance to repelling an attack or an invasion, or to generally keeping the country safe. We can honor the military dead most appropriately by keeping a watchful eye on the policies of our government, speaking out against those policies when they do violence to the Constitution, especially when they involve sending our troops to needless, undeclared wars that have nothing to do with protecting our people here at home. Such policies which serve the ends of empire and wealthy corporate interests constitute an abuse of the lives of those who volunteer for military service. A proper honoring of those who have died in war must include making certain that war is avoided insofar as possible; that decisions to go to war are not entered into lightly, pre-emptively, or for perverse ends (including, but not limited to, empire and nation-building); and that all elected officials are held accountable for decisions that could potentially lead to war. Furthermore, an honoring of the war dead can be furthered by returning to the peaceful foreign policy of non-intervention recommended by our founders, one which emphasizes friendship and commerce with the people of all nations that are willing, free from entangling political alliances.


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