Memorial Day (this past Monday) began as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who died in WWI. In the decades since then, the holiday has become both a major sales event (the triumph of commerce!) and a time to recall more generally the sacrifices of US military personnel, especially of those killed or wounded in combat.
Commemorating the sacrifices of military personnel—whatever the sacrifice and regardless of who made it—is hypocritical unless the commemorator also commits to ensuring that no future sacrifice is made in vain. Sadly, no way exists to alter the past and the thousands of US military casualties, along with those of other nations, pointlessly or even immorally injured or killed. Simply and indiscriminately commemorating the sacrifices of military personnel encourages a militarism that is antithetical to the essence of the world's great religions.
President Obama in his commencement address (full transcript) at West Point said,
Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War. …
Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. …
For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.
I agree with his sentiments. I strongly disagree with several of the policies he implicitly and explicitly recommended in his speech:
- Obama failed to recommend cutting defense expenditures, apparently unwilling to tackle the military-industrial-political juggernaut that wastes valuable national resources on military equipment and personnel that are not essential for national defense.
- Obama described the outcome of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as victories. Iraq is falling apart. Afghanistan, in spite of our presence for 13 years has never achieved an effective national government. Both wars were failures. Tens of thousands of people are dead; the US alone has spent more than $3 trillion; yet, it is difficult to say that the world is a better or safer place because we fought both wars. Failing to encourage politicians to speak the truth unhelpfully paves the way for future military adventurism.
- Giving military and political assistance—regardless of the type of amount—to other nations to aid in combatting terrorism will not dramatically reduce the problem of international terrorism. Ending terrorism begins by the people whom terrorists threaten or attack developing the cardinal virtues of courage, prudence, justice, and temperance. The second step is seeking justice for terrorists by apprehending suspects for lawful adjudication, releasing the innocent and punishing the guilty. The final piece is to promote greater equality, political fairness, and distributive fairness among peoples from whom terrorists seek the recruits, resources, and other support that a terror group requires to flourish. Only a comprehensive approach to counterterrorism maximizes counterterrorism effectiveness.
On Memorial Day, we appropriately remember those injured or killed in the nation's service. However, we appropriately honor them when we commit ourselves to working to end militarism and to use the military only as a last resort when the cause is just and success seems reasonably probable.