Sunday, May 28, 2006

In Honor of Soldiers?

As the flowers rest on the decorated graves and the sunlight shines on the beautiful sailboats, Uncle Sam whispers in my ear about how we should care for the soldiers and remember the ones that have died. Swimming pools open, BBQs fry. Today is the day to think of what they have done for us. There are blurs of red, white and blue marching down the street and flags are lowered at half-mast. But we should always remember and never forget what set us free, from this very day on.

— Memorial Day by Ali M., 3rd Grader, Academy Elementary School, Madison, CT. © 2001. [Online] URL:

I find myself conflicted about this holiday. I have always wanted to believe in the absolute virtuousness of the sacrifice of a soldier’s life, but I’ve begun to question whether that ideal is, on its own, an appropriate thing to honor. I’m not dragging out a political soapbox here; I just want to get some thoughts out.

What are we really celebrating on this holiday? The answer we all learned in elementary school is that we should remember the soldiers who died defending and protecting our country. OK. What constitutes “defending and protecting”? Is that what our soldiers in Iraq are doing now? I know that’s what we are being fed as doctrine, but I have been offered this fruit before and have learned to distrust it. It’s that lack of trust in the worthiness of the sacrifice, I guess, that is at the root of my conflict. I’m just not sure it’s right and proper to memorialize soldiers who, for example, fight to enforce on others our ideals and causes, especially in the name of defending our country.

We’ve been told since Vietnam (and perhaps earlier, I don’t really know) that it is important to honor our soldiers for their sacrifice, even when we disagree with the cause they champion. After all, they are only doing what they’ve been told, right? Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote that, “…the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” Is that something worth honoring? As someone who has had his faith in his government and fellow citizens shaken and who values his experience and his intelligence, I find myself balking at this as a thing worthy of memorial.

Were soldiers today drafted or conscripted and sent off, as they were in times past, perhaps I would see this as much more black-and-white, but the truth of the matter is that they are not. Our military is composed of volunteers. Some, I’m certain, choose to serve for noble reasons; many do not and it insults me, quite frankly, to have someone tell me that a profiteer’s motives are as worthy of respect as the true patriot’s. Yet, how can I know one from the other? How can I know that the war they fight is an honorable one?

I very much value the nobility of true patriotism. I would not hesitate to give my life to defend my family (and that includes my “family-by-oath”) and my right to fulfill my destiny (and for others I love to fulfill theirs) free of oppression and tyranny. Those soldiers, volunteers or not, whose lives were taken in defense of these I gladly honor. I resent, however, the implication that I must also pay homage to those whose crusades are less principled.

Am I being hypocritical here? Quixotic? Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated.


HomeFireBlue said...

I confess to being a patriot.

I feel it is right and just to honour anyone who has died in service of his(her) country. What his motivation was is immaterial IMHO. He lost his life in the military that defends me and mine.

He deserves honour.

To begin splitting hairs seems like a slippery slope. At what point does one reserve honour? Could that line change?

There are cruel, evil, self-serving people in any service field (police, firefighter, etc). One can't start speculating how each person's motivations affect their performance of duty.

Just because you're an asshole doesn't mean you won't run into a burning building to save a child


But that's just my take ;)


Mrs.Chili said...

Yeah. This is a tough one for me, too.

I have a lot of trouble with the "nobility factor" of war in the first place, but I'm not sure that's what we're talking about here. Well, hang on. Maybe it is.

I agree with Blue - and with how Blue put it, too - just because one is an asshole doesn't mean one isn't capable of doing something good and noble. Wayfarer made a good point - what defines what is good and noble?

In avoidance of dragging out the proverbial soap box, let me say this; the current military action in Iraq does not meet my litmus test for honorability. That does not mean that I don't respect the soldiers who are there doing the work - I do. I also recognize that they have no choice in the matter. I often wonder how many of them would completely opt out of the operation if given the choice.

Now, if we were supporting peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, I would be 100% behind it. Here is a crisis of utterly incomprehensible proportions. People are actually ASKING for our help and yet, because there's little or nothing in it for "us" (meaning "the Bush administration"), we invoke some sort of capitalist 'prime directive' and claim powerlessness. It disgusts and shames me.

Blue is right in the end, I think. We should honor those who choose to serve, despite whatever conditions they are required to serve under (and, really, what motivations compelled them to serve in the first place). To shake it all out would be far more complicated than we could handle - the details are really between the soldier (and the commanders) and the Universe to sort out.

BoDog said...

Soldiers have a job. A very dangerous job unlike most jobs. Not only are you in danger of getting killed from foreign aggressors, but they also are in danger of slander and anger due to their role in wars with which not everyone agrees. And it's easy to say, "Well, he (the soldier) should refuse!"

The problem? When you join the armed services, you sign a contract for a certain amount of time and in that time you HAVE to do your job. And it's not like a teaching contract...if they break their contracts, they go to jail.

Anyone willing to do so, go through the hardship of training, the risk of life, the stress of being separated from family, and the slings and arrows of vehement antiwar activists, deserves to be honored. Even those who join up just to get a paycheck or just to get an education or whatever other reason someone might have, because we don't honor each individual ... We honor the job and the sacrifice inherent in that job and the bravery that even the assholiest of soldiers has.

And when you encounter that soldier who revels telling the tale how he killed some towelhead in that godforsaken desert country and got paid for it and how wonderful it was...You can say, to him or yourself (probably safer) that you don't honor him. Give the honor and appreciation wholesale ... You can still take it back individually ... but you can't blame a soldier for an administration's decision to go to war.

Mrs.Chili said...

Bodog, that was eloquently and succinctly said. Thanks for that.

Wayfarer said...

Thank you, all, for your wonderful and considered comments on this issue.

I've been thinking about it a lot since I posted this entry, and I guess the problem I have is less with soldiers themselves than the causes they serve and, since it is not truly their choice to serve or not serve a particular cause (an excellent point, Bodog), my comments about honor are more properly directed at those who send them off to fight.

I agree with you, Chili. The American military's presence in Iraq does not constitute an honorable cause, in my humble opinion, and I resent being told that it should be considered so "because, well, we're over there now and it'd be a shame to leave before we're done." I also see Blue's point about the need to separate the person from the deed. How many times have we seen assholes contribute amazing things, beneficial things to the world? It's the whole basis for the flawed hero in literature.

Someday (not today) I may actually get on my political soapbox and rant about our current Executive Branch. Right now, I have a paper on brain-based learning to write.

Pamela said...

I honor anyone who serves their country and makes the ultimate sacrifice. I live near an army and an airforce base and spend a great deal of time with military families. Their service to our counrty is a great sacrifice for them.

They're human. Of course they're not perfect. Mistakes are made. But at the end of the day, my hand will always be placed over my heart when our anthem plays and my prayers go up for our fighting men and women. They deserve nothing less.