As Barack Obama said the other day, it's a time to "pay tribute to our fallen heroes; and to remember the servicemen and women who cannot be with us this year because they are standing post far from home." He acknowledged that we have often "failed to give them the support they need" and promised that we are now "building a 21st century Department of Veterans Affairs with the largest single-year funding increase in three decades." Certainly veterans need better services and better access to them.
Some right-wing bloggers have been complaining about the President's confusion of Memorial day and Veterans day, but it seems reasonable to consider the larger context of what is being honored. We would not be remembering dead soldiers if they hadn't once been live soldiers.
We would also not be remembering so many dead soldiers if more of them had followed the model of Ehren Watada, the first commisioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. Last week he won a legal victory when the Justice Department dropped efforts to retry him after his court martial ended in a mistrial. But the Army still wants to punish him for declaring the Iraq war illegal and immoral, and for having the courage to call out "the deception . . . used to initiate and process this war."
But President Obama did not mention Ehren Watada nor any of the other troops who have refused to serve. He also did not mention the plight of women soldiers, about whom Helen Benedict has written in the current issue of the Nation magazine, noting that
More women have fought and died in Iraq than in all the wars since World War II put together. Over 206,000 have served in the Middle East since March 2003, most of them in Iraq; and over 600 have been wounded and 104 have died in Iraq alone, according to the Department of Defense. In Iraq, one in ten troops is a woman.
But President Obama did not mention the Service Women's Action Network, nor did he mention the "don’t ask, don't tell" policy that requires gay and lesbian military personnel to remain in the closet. He did mention 1776, 1861, and 1944, reminding us of the wars that are remembered for throwing off colonial rule, ending chattel slavery, and defeating Hitler and ending the Holocaust.
He did not remind us of any of the other 230 times the US has used its armed forces abroad, nor any of the over 60 military efforts outside the U.S. since World War II. Those efforts include actions in Greece, Turkey, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Haiti, Cuba, Panama, the Dominincan Republic, Cambodia, Laos, Iran, Libya, Grenada, El Salvador, Honduras, Bolivia, the Philippines, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Macedonia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, the Seychelles, Tajikistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
He did not mention the military or civilians of other countries who have died in the same actions that killed American soldiers.
As Noam Chomsky recently noted, "Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead."
I'd like to close with a poem by Adrienne Rich, that appears in the current issue of the Nation. It's called "Quarto":
Call me Sebastian, arrows sticking all over
The map of my battlefields. Marathon.
Wounded Knee. Vicksburg. Jericho.
Battle of the Overpass.
Victories turned inside out
But no surrender
Cemeteries of remorse
The beaten champion sobbing
Ghosts move in to shield his tears
No one writes lyric on a battlefield
On a map stuck with arrows
But I think I can do it if I just lurk
In my tent pretending to
Refeather my arrows
I’ll be right there! I yell
When they come with their crossbows and white phosphorus
To recruit me
Crouching over my drafts
lest they find me out
and shoot me
Press your cheek against my medals, listen through them to my heart
Doctor, can you see me if I’m naked?
Spent longer in this place than in the war
No one comes but rarely and I don’t know what for
Went to that desert as many did before
Farewell and believing and hope not to die
Hope not to die and what was the life
Did we think was awaiting after
Lay down your stethoscope back off on your skills
Doctor can you see me when I’m naked?
I’ll tell you about the mermaid
Sheds swimmable tail Gets legs for dancing
Sings like the sea with a choked throat
Knives straight up her spine
Lancing every step
There is a price
There is a price
For every gift
And all advice
For the Old Mole Variety Hour May 25, 2009