Memorial Day's Troubling Message
Editor’s Note: Memorial Day has been a time-honored tradition in America, a holiday to honor soldiers who fought and died in the nation’s many wars. But it has developed another purpose, generating a nostalgia that justifies a future of endless war.
In this guest essay, Dr. Gary G. Kohls recounts his personal concern about today’s troubling message from Memorial Day:
During my rural Minnesota growing up years, I rarely missed a Memorial Day parade or the traditional civic service honoring the war dead that followed the parade.
The parade was always led by a WWII veteran honor guard with their flags, uniforms, ribbons and rifles and followed by the high school band and a couple of floats.
Immediately following the parade, there was the solemn gathering that always began with one of the town’s clergymen blessing the occasion with the “benediction.” Somewhere in the program we all sang “God Bless America” and/or the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and that was followed by a boring patriotic speech delivered by some politician or retired military officer.
Then the (usually) mercifully short service ended with the pastor praying a prayer for the dead and also for world peace.
Later on during my maturing college years of the 1960s, I was confronted by the harsh reality of the “overwhelming atrocity” that was the Vietnam War. I became aware of the fact that covered-up (and therefore unpunished) international war crimes were being committed by all sides in that war and had been committed in every war in history, no matter which side was fighting the so-called “just war.”
I gradually learned that innumerable conscienceless corporations and members of the wealthy investor class profited greatly from wars.
I found out that wars were decreed by the powerful and wealthy with their saber-rattling; wars were embraced by wrapped-in-the-flag old men; and they were fought by easily indoctrinated, brain-washable macho adolescent boys who would eventually know better – but not until it was too late - than to obey suicidal orders in a pseudo-patriotic war.
I found out that these unaware young men who went through basic training had to be de-spiritualized, brutalized and re-programmed in order to kill without questioning why and to be willing to be killed.
I finally understood what “cannon fodder” meant. I learned that the lowly soldier who pulls the triggers and who suffers the most psychologically, spiritually and physically, never profits from the wars. The benefits go to “chicken hawk” corporate executives and to their friendly politicians.
Later in my medical practice years, I found out from the traumatized veterans of wars and their secondarily traumatized loved ones what were the deadly acute and chronic consequences of participating in homicidal violence, either as a combatant, bystander or innocent civilian victim.
Much later, as I studied the ethical teachings of Jesus and the first few centuries of his followers in the early church, I discovered that war and killing were forbidden for the followers who consistently refused to join Rome’s military in the defense of the Empire.
Despite the suffering they experienced for their faith, the early Christians saw their nonviolent religion gradually grow to be the largest in the Empire, before the Church was ultimately absorbed into Rome’s power structure.
In more recent times, the nonviolent teachings of Jesus also have been lost in America’s increasingly pro-war and militaristic Memorial Day celebrations. The voices of peacemakers are rarely permitted at such events.
Memorial Day was no longer a lament for the past suffering of young men sent off to die for some political miscalculation or some corporation’s profits.
Instead, the various branches of the military often sent impressive weaponry to the parades, which were transformed into recruiting tools for impressionable minds and into propaganda exercises to ensure future political support for war-making.
American military dominance – and the well-hidden goals of American Empire – are now intrinsic parts of every Memorial Day weekend.
So I stopped going. It took me a long time, but I eventually saw through the subterfuge. I could no longer endure the hypocrisy.
My understanding of history had changed my politics and theology, and I couldn’t envision myself being a part of war-mongering activities again.
Two years ago, around Memorial Day 2008, Chris Hedges wrote a long and sobering 11-page essay that will resonate with many open-minded readers who sense that a creeping Friendly American Fascism is coming. Hedges wrote:
“I used to live in a country called America. It was not a perfect country, God knows, especially if you were African-American or Native American or of Japanese descent in World War II or poor or gay or a woman or an immigrant, but it was a country I loved and honored.
“This country gave me hope that it could be better. It paid its workers wages that were envied around the world. It made sure these workers, thanks to labor unions and champions of the working class in the Democratic Party and the press, had health benefits and pensions.
“It offered good public education. It honored basic democratic values and held in regard the rule of law, including international law, and respect for human rights. It had social programs from Head Start to welfare to Social Security to take care of the weakest among us, the mentally ill, the elderly and the destitute.
“It had a system of government that, however flawed, was dedicated to protecting the interests of its citizens.
“It offered the possibility of democratic change. It had a media that was diverse and endowed with the integrity to give a voice to all segments of society, including those beyond our borders, to impart to us unpleasant truths, to challenge the powerful, to explain ourselves to ourselves.
“I am not blind to the imperfections of this America, or the failures to always meet these ideals at home and abroad. I spent 20 years of my life in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans as a foreign correspondent reporting in countries where crimes and injustices were committed in our name, whether during the Contra war in Nicaragua or the brutalization of the Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces.
“But there was much that was good and decent and honorable in our country. And there was hope.
“The country I live in today uses the same words to describe itself, the same patriotic symbols and iconography, the same national myths, but only the shell remains.
“America, the country of my birth, the country that formed and shaped me, the country of my father, my father’s father, and his father’s father, stretching back to the generations of my family that were here for the country’s founding, is so diminished as to be nearly unrecognizable.
“Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations and a narrow, selfish political elite, a small and privileged group which governs on behalf of moneyed interests. We are undergoing, as John Ralston Saul wrote, ‘a coup d’etat in slow motion.’
“We are being impoverished-legally, economically, spiritually and politically.
“And unless we soon reverse this tide, unless we wrest the state away from corporate hands, we will be sucked into the dark and turbulent world of globalization where there are only masters and serfs, where the American dream will be no more than that-a dream, where those who work hard for a living can no longer earn a decent wage to sustain themselves or their families, whether in sweat shops in China or the decaying rust belt of Ohio, where democratic dissent is condemned as treason and ruthlessly silenced.
“I single out no party. The Democratic Party has been as guilty as the Republicans. It was Bill Clinton who led the Democratic Party to the corporate watering trough. Clinton argued that the party had to ditch labor unions, no longer a source of votes or power, as a political ally.
“Workers, he insisted, would vote Democratic anyway. They had no choice. It was better, he argued, to take corporate money. By the 1990s, the Democratic Party, under Clinton’s leadership, had virtual fundraising parity with the Republicans. Today the Democrats get more. In political terms, it was a success. In moral terms, it was a betrayal.
“The North American Free Trade Agreement was sold to the country by the Clinton White House as an opportunity to raise the incomes and prosperity of the citizens of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
“But NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, had the curious effect of reversing every one of Clinton’s rosy predictions. Once the Mexican government lifted price supports on corn and beans for Mexican farmers, they had to compete against the huge agribusinesses in the United States.
“The Mexican farmers were swiftly bankrupted. At least 2 million Mexican farmers have been driven off their land since 1994. And guess where many of them went?
“NAFTA was great if you were a corporation. It was a disaster if you were a worker.
“While the Democrats have been very bad, George W. Bush has been even worse. Let’s set aside Iraq - the worst foreign policy blunder in American history. George Bush has also done more to dismantle our Constitution, ignore or revoke our statutes and reverse regulations that protected American citizens from corporate abuse than any other president in recent American history.
“The Bush administration has gutted environmental, food and product safety, and workplace safety standards along with their enforcement. And this is why coal mines collapse, the housing bubble has blown up in our face and we are sold lead-contaminated toys imported from China.
“Bush has done more than any president to hand our government directly over to corporations, which now get 40 percent of federal discretionary spending. Over 800,000 jobs once handled by government employees have been outsourced to corporations, a move that has not only further empowered our shadow corporate government but helped destroy federal workforce unions.
“Everything from federal prisons, the management of regulatory and scientific reviews, the processing or denial of Freedom of Information requests, interrogating prisoners and running the world’s largest mercenary army in Iraq has become corporate.
“The assault on the American working class is nearly complete. The U.S. economy has 3.2 million fewer jobs today than it did when George Bush took office, including 2.5 million fewer manufacturing jobs.
“A total of 15 million U.S. workers are unemployed, underemployed or too discouraged to job hunt, according to the Labor Department. There are whole sections of the United States which now resemble the developing world.
“And the assault on the middle class is now under way. Anything that can be put on software - from finance to architecture to engineering - can and is being outsourced to workers in countries such as India or China who accept a fraction of the pay and work without benefits.
“And both the Republican and Democratic parties, beholden to corporations for money and power, allow this to happen.
“Take a look at our government departments. Who runs the Defense Department? The Department of Interior? The Department of Agriculture? The Food and Drug Administration? Who runs the Department of Labor? Corporations.
“And in an election year where we are numbed by absurdities we hear nothing about this subordinating of the American people to corporate power. The political debates, which have become popularity contests, are ridiculous and empty. They do not confront the real and advanced destruction of our democracy. They do not confront the takeover of our electoral processes.
“Corporate entities dominate, for example, a bloated and wasteful defense industry which has become sacrosanct and beyond the reach of politicians, most of whom are left defending military projects in their districts, no matter how redundant, because they provide jobs.
“This has permitted a military-industrial complex, which contributes lavishly to political campaigns, to spread across the country with virtual impunity. Defense-related spending for fiscal 2008 will exceed $1 trillion for the first time in history. The U.S. has become the largest single seller of arms and munitions on the planet.... More than half of federal discretionary spending goes to defense.
“The defense industry is able to monopolize the best scientific and research talent and squander the nation’s resources and investment capital. These defense industries produce nothing that is useful for society or the national trade account.
“The corporate state, begun under Ronald Reagan and pushed forward by every president since, has destroyed the public and private institutions that protected workers and safeguarded citizens.
“Only 7.8 per cent of workers in the private sector are unionized. This is about the same percentage as in the early 1900s. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called ‘near poverty.’ Our health care system is broken.
“But we do not hear these stories of pain and dislocation. News reports do little more than report on trivia and celebrity gossip.
“Our political decline came about because of deregulation, the repeal of antitrust laws, and the radical transformation from a manufacturing economy to a capital economy. This understanding led Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 29, 1938, wrote:
“ ‘The first truth is that the liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism-ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.’
“The rise of the corporate state has grave political consequences, as we saw in Italy and Germany in the early part of the 20th century. …now that we have a state that is run by and on behalf of corporations, we must expect inevitable and perhaps terrifying political consequences.
“As the pressure mounts, as this despair and desperation reaches into larger and larger segments of the American populace, the mechanisms of corporate and government control are being bolstered to prevent civil unrest and instability. It is not accidental that with the rise of the corporate state comes the rise of the security state.
“This is why the Bush White House has pushed through the Patriot Act (and its renewal), the suspension of habeas corpus, the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition,’ the warrantless wiretapping on American citizens and the refusal to ensure free and fair elections with verifiable ballot-counting.
“It is part of a package. It comes together. It is not about terrorism or national security. It is about control. It is about their control of us.
“We are fed lie after lie to mask the destruction the corporate state has wrought in our lives. We are one, maybe two, terrorist attacks away from a police state. Time is running out.
”George Bush lied to us and to the rest of the world. There are tens of thousands, perhaps a few hundred thousand people, who have been killed and maimed in a war that has no legal justification, a war waged in violation of international law, a war that under the post-Nuremberg laws is defined as ‘a criminal war of aggression.’
“We are waging a war that devours lives and capital, and that cannot ultimately be won. We are told we need to give up our rights to be safe, to be protected. In short, we are made afraid.
“We are told to hand over all that is best about our nation to those like George Bush and Dick Cheney who seek to destroy our nation. A state of fear only engenders cruelty; fear, insanity, and then paralysis.
“In the center of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless. If we do not become angry, if we do not muster within us the courage, indeed the militancy, to challenge those in the Democratic and Republican parties who herd us towards the corporate state, we will have squandered our courage and our integrity when we need it most.
Dr. Kohls is a retired physician who writes about issues of war and peace.
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