Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day: Dying in Vain

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

On this Memorial Day, let us celebrate the fallen warriors, the soldiers that marched off to fight in the politicians' wars under the illusion that they were defending our freedom, the young men, and now young women, who died in vain.

At the beginning of this weekend, about a hundred of us gathered under sunny skies in Santa Cruz Mission Plaza for a Peace Walk organized by a local chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. There was an altar on the grass flanked by two large exhibits containing the photographs and names of several hundred American servicemen and women killed in Iraq, thus personalizing our remembrance of the fallen. Holding flowers and Buddhist prayer flags, we marched silently down into town, along the river, and up Pacific Avenue past the shops and the tourists. On our return, we unrolled a huge scroll containing, symbolically, the names of 28,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed since the invasion three years ago (a low estimate, I suspect). The event ended with a metta meditation, sending compassion out from Santa Cruz to our poor, war-torn world.

President Bush laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery this morning. "I am in awe of the men and women who sacrifice for the freedom of the United States of America," he reportedly said. And just how, pray tell, did their deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan do anything for our freedom or liberty here in the United States? It is well known by now that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destructions, did not consort with Al-Qaeda, and posed no threat to this country. He was a tyrant, like many of the foreign leaders our presidents have supported in the past. But how does toppling him, in defiance of international law, make us secure? The logic of patriotic ideology is absurd. I sympathize with the hard life of a soldier. But I see no reason, as the bumper sticker has it, to "Thank a Soldier for your Freedom."

My ex-wife's brother died in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, in June of 1967, two month's shy of his 21st birthday. We found his name on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, surrounded by 50,000 others. He died for a lie, the Tonkin Gulf incident. His death left a hole in the family and his father never recovered. How many times has that story been repeated? Now soldiers are marching off to Iraq and Afghanistan, not to defend democracy and freedom but to build an empire and protect our access to oil. More lies. How many deaths, how many mutilations and maimings does it take, before the soldiers stop marching off to war? How many revelations and shameful exposes will it take before our politicians stop putting our finest in harm's way?

Who do we blame for the prevalence of war, the politician or the solider? Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" laments the ubiquity of war. Buffy Saint-Marie's anthem from the 1960's, "Universal Soldier," picks on the soldier:

He's five feet two and he's six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He's all of 31 and he's only 17
He's been a soldier for a thousand years

He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain,
a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
and he knows he shouldn't kill
and he knows he always will
kill you for me my friend and me for you

And he's fighting for Canada,
he's fighting for France,
he's fighting for the USA,
and he's fighting for the Russians
and he's fighting for Japan,
and he thinks we'll put an end to war this way

And he's fighting for Democracy
and fighting for the Reds
He says it's for the peace of all
He's the one who must decide
who's to live and who's to die
and he never sees the writing on the walls

But without him how would Hitler have
condemned him at Dachau
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He's the one who gives his body
as a weapon to a war
and without him all this killing can't go on

He's the universal soldier and he
really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from him, and you, and me
and brothers can't you see
this is not the way we put an end to war.

She gets it right in the end. The orders to fight "come from him, and you, and me," all of us who subscribe to the idea war can be a path to peace. Our freedoms must be defended. The Homeland is in peril! Democracy requires the blood of martyrs. I prefer not to blame the victim, however. Soldiers are recruited, not only by ideological slogans but also by conditions. Poverty and lack of employment possibilities impell healthy young people into the military. Our celebrated "all-volunteer" Army is populated with people of color who can't get a job, along with middle-class white kids who who couldn't afford to go to college. Some just wanted to "see the world," but not necessarily to visit exotic places and kill the natives.

The villains most responsible for war, and for the deaths in vain of hundreds of thousands of someone's sons and daughters, are the corporate profiteers and the corrupt politicians who scare us with lies about "Communists!" and "terrorists!" to hide their hidden agendas. They twisted the tragedy of September 11th for the own purposes, and have now embroiled the United States in an endless war in the Middle East, a new crusade that generates new "terrorists" as fast as it kills them. When will it ever end?

On this Memorial Day, 2006, let us remember the the fallen warriors, our children, who marched off to foreign lands for a fake cause where they died in vain. Let us also remember the ones who sent them there.

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