Memorial Day Thoughts

May 25, 2015

There’s a quote out there which captures well my thoughts about Memorial Day. It’s from Senator Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), who says:

If you are not prepared to take care of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend this country – who came back wounded in body, wounded in spirit – if you’re not prepared to help those people, then don’t send them to war in the first place.

Memorial Day was, originally, Decoration Day. (For some background on the early origins of the holiday, read The Surprising History of Memorial Day by Ben Railton for Talking Points Memo.) It had as its purpose decorating the graves of dead soldiers.

I appreciate the fact that Senator Sanders’ comments refer to living veterans, making them a better fit for Veterans Day. Alas, we’re talking about a holiday which has been set on the last Monday in May since 1971, per the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, to provide us with more three-day weekends. It’s also the holiday we use to welcome the summer season, and it provides for lots of sales on cars, mattresses, and such.

Back in the day, after World War II, we did right by returning veterans. The GI Bill gave soldiers a chance for an education, and millions availed themselves. Now, while there are benefits for veterans, they provide far less money relative to costs.

We still provide health care for veterans, and when that care is available it’s often excellent. Unfortunately, need has overwhelmed resources. Remember the Veterans Health Care Crisis? by Stacy Kaper for the National Journal, written almost a year ago, provides an excellent overview of the situation, and Obama Signs $16 Billion VA Health Care Bill into Law by Bill Chappell for NPR provides an update. Sadly, $16b is simply not enough money to solve the problem.


So it’s within this milieu that I find the trigger-happiness of many so discomforting. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has never met a problem our troops can’t solve. Ditto for his fellow traveler, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Both Senators McCain and Graham have military backgrounds—Senator Graham is, today a Colonel in the Air Force Reserves—and the “if you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail” analogy fits.

Many others who play a role in sending people off to war do not, however, have any military experience. They include: Vice President Dick Cheney, who had “other priorities” during the Vietnam War; Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, who wondered about what difference he would have made; House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who claimed minorities got all of the spots; and Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who complained about a bum knee, ran a “he’s not a patriot” campaign against a triple-amputee U.S. Senator who left his limbs in Vietnam, and was a star athlete in the Senate. (Chicken Hawks and Blowhards!, from about six months ago, offers other examples and includes the complete listing from The New Hampshire Gazette.)

We live in an unjust world. Powerful people make decisions for others, often without caring at all about consequences. Within the realm of sending people off to war, the actions are especially offensive because: (a) the consequences are often devastating; and (b) the same people who send others away have a propensity for wrapping themselves and others like them in the flag, as if they’re special because they make the hard calls (for others.)

One of heroes has always been Senator George McGovern, who represented South Dakota in the Senate for 18 years. He was a war hero in World War II, he understood war well enough to know there’s something really wrong about sending young people off to war for no good reason, and he built a career in public life around feeding hungry people. A real deal man!

RIP Senator McGovern. Godspeed to the families of those who have lost their lives, too often for not very good reasons. Thanks, as well, to the many living veterans who, fortunately, are still with us.

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