Today is Memorial Day, the last day of the three-day weekend. Veterans and community groups will remember those who died in battle and, as they have done for more than a century, will place small flags on graves.
But, for most of America, Memorial Day is a three-day picnic-filled weekend that heralds the start of summer, just as Labor Day has become a three-day picnic-filled weekend that laments the end of summer.
Each of the extended weekends also provides forums for politicians to stand in front of red-white-and-blue bunting to deliver political speeches they hope will make the voters think they care about veterans and the working class—and if it helps their election or re-election campaigns, so much the better.
The first Memorial Day was May 1, 1865, when hundreds of freed slaves, missionaries, and teachers held a solemn ceremony to honor the Union soldiers who died in a Confederate prison camp in Charleston, S.C. That memorial evolved into Decoration Day and then in 1882 to Memorial Day. The last Monday in May now honors all soldiers killed in all wars.
There haven’t been many years when the U.S. wasn’t engaged in some war. Some were fought for noble purposes, such as the Revolutionary War and World War II; some were fought for ignoble purposes, such as the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars.
The U.S. is currently engaged in winding down the longest war in our history. The war in Afghanistan had begun with the pretense of a noble purpose—to capture the leaders of al-Qaeda who created 9/11. But, that war was nearly forgotten while the U.S. skip-jumped into Iraq, which had no connection to al-Qaeda, 9/11, or any weapons of mass destruction. It did have a dictator who allowed torture against its dissidents—but so did North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and dozens of other countries that the Bush–Cheney war machine didn’t consider.
No, it was Iraq that became the focus of the White House Warriors. It wasn’t long before the U.S. commitment in Iraq was more than 10 times the personnel and equipment than in Afghanistan. It was a commitment that had left the U.S. vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters, as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, within a month of each other, proved. The Bush–Cheney administration had diverted funds from numerous public works projects, including reinforcement of the levees in New Orleans, to increase the U.S. presence in Iraq. By the time Katrina had hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, National Guard troops and their equipment, including deep water vehicles, were in Iraq.
Also in Iraq was now al-Qaeda, which Saddam Hussein had managed to keep out of his country; and a civil war, as Iraqi political and religious groups fought for control.
Barack Obama, as promised in his campaign, did end the war in Iraq, and reasserted American presence in Afghanistan, allegedly sought out and killed Osama bin Laden, and then created a way for complete U.S. withdrawal from combat.
The Bush–Cheney administration had figured a maximum cost of $100 billion for what they believed would be no more than a two-year war. The financial cost of the wars has been almost $4 trillion, according to an investigative study by researchers at Brown University. The $4 trillion includes rampant corruption and no-bid contracts to numerous companies, including Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s home for several years.
But the real cost is not in dollars but in lives. Going into the Memorial Day weekend, the war in Afghanistan cost 3,011 American and allied lives. The American wounded, some of whom will have permanent disabilities or may die lingering deaths from those wounds, is now at 15,322. In Iraq, 4,486 Americans died; 32,233 were wounded. There are no accurate estimates of the number of civilian and enemy deaths and wounded, but the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands.
“War represents a failure of diplomacy,” said Tony Benn, one of the most popular politicians, who served in the British parliament for more than 50 years, including several years as leader of various cabinet departments.
In wars throughout the world, there will be more deaths today and tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and every day thereafter. And once a year, Americans will honor the deaths of young men sent into battle by intractable politicians, supported by media pundits and a horde of civilians with the wisdom of asphalt who have not learned the lessons of Tony Benn.
Walter Brasch’s latest book is the critically-acclaimed journalistic novel, Before the First Snow, which looks at the counter-culture, social protest, and the cost of war.