For those of us in the U.S., today is Memorial Day. America has a fine tradition of military service and sacrifice. The best way to respect and honor it is to reflect on what it means to serve and perhaps die for your country, and to think about the value of the cause, the power of the reasons, and the strength of the evidence you would need before asking someone—someone like your brother, or friend, or neighbor—to take on that burden. That so many are willing to serve is a testament to the character of ordinary people in the United States. That these people have, in recent years, shouldered the burden of service for the sake of a badly planned war begun in the name of an ill-defined cause, on the thinnest of pretexts, and with the most flimsy sort of evidence, is an indictment of the country’s political class.
Update: I’ve added a little more below the fold. Update 2: And a little more.
Orin Kerr thinks I “don’t get it,” believes this post “seems designed to get lots of people hopping mad,” and several commenters voice similar opinions below. I disagree. I grew up in a country steeped in false piety and soaked in the language of blood sacrifice. I have no tolerance for either. Contrary to what Orin claims, there is no better time than public holidays of remembrance for people to seriously consider whether we should be adding still more young men and women to the roll of dead whom we will remember in coming years. I am not the one who is “test[ing] my ability to invent a populist voice” as Orin claims. For an example of that, you could have gone to Arlington Cemetery today and heard someone claim that ‘we must honor [the war dead] by completing the mission for which they gave their lives, by defeating the terrorists, advancing the cause of liberty, and building a safer world.’ In both Orin’s post and some of the comments below the assumption seems to be that any effort to counterbalance that sort of talk is always just designed to get people mad; that questioning policy always just means taking partisan cheap shots; and that taking leaders at their word and asking whether they live up to their promises is simply an effort to grab the spotlight or spit out some personal bile. That’s a purely cynical view of political life and public debate. And yet I’m supposed to be the one who is not taking things seriously.
Update 2: The bitterness and sanctimony of many of the comments below continues to depress. Also the huge interpretive effort to make the original post as insulting as possible: only in the hands of a certain kind of person could the phrase “a tribute to the character of ordinary Americans” be construed as an insult. “Ordinary” is not a term of abuse in my language. Orin Kerr has updated his post upon reading President Bush’s remarks at Arlington, which sought in part to convert the deaths of soldiers into a reason to continue Bush’s policies. Orin says
In my view, Memorial Day is about honoring sacrifice, not about trying to suggest that the war in Iraq was a good idea (Bush) or a bad idea (Healy).
This is even-handed, but of course the difference between me and Bush isn’t just in our stance on the war. He’s the President!
In fairness to Orin, if I were writing this post again I’d have been happier to choose language like Jim Henley’s, if only to avoid all the crap that’s now flying in the comments. Like me, Jim says that we “should be mindful that every one of those deaths betokened an awesome act of trust – trust that, when they made themselves into weapons, they would be wielded wisely; trust that, when they lay down their lives, we would use that coin for worthy purchase.” He goes on to say, “As a nation we have only ever fitfully met the standards implicit in those deaths. Let us be humble, and let us try harder.” If you wanted to be maximally uncharitable, you could read this as saying something even more insulting than me: “Only fitfully met?” Whereas I only criticized one, Jim’s saying that most of the wars the U.S. has engaged in have not lived up to the trust of the soldiers! If some of those who have shown up below want to head over to Jim’s site and drop some abuse on him on those grounds, go ahead.
I cannot accept the view that the reasons for the deaths we commemorate aren’t up for discussion on Memorial Day. Just go to Gallipoli any ANZAC day to see that there’s no contradiction between solemn commemoration and the reflection that it was all a huge waste. The best analogy I’ve seen comes from war-supporter Trent McBride. Imagine I had posted on May Day saying something like “This is not the day to point out that all those ordinary people who died at the hands of Stalin and Mao did so for nothing: instead we should simply remember and honor their deaths, not condemn the pointless social experiments that caused them.” What then? Would the same people who attack me in the comments below defend me then? I doubt it.