There is a difference between remembering the past and learning from it.
Too much to memorialize
I just participated in our small town Memorial Day tribute, a pretty typical one I should imagine: the smallish parade -- an American Legion Honor Guard, some Boy Scouts, a fire truck and the high school band -- that stops on the bridge over the river to fire some blanks and drop a wreath in the water. This is followed by the traditional commemoration at the town's cemetery, with a reading of "In Flanders' Fields" by high school students. (I did that reading myself, 50 years ago!) There was a very good speech by Judy Reas, candidate for the state legislature, and a reading of the names -- with only a few mispronunciations -- of the honored dead who lie in that hallowed ground.
The flag was lowered to half-staff by the Boy Scouts, and "Taps" was played with an echo: one bugler standing in front of us and another over the hill, out-of-sight.
A good-sized crowd of local citizens was in attendance, with folding chairs and walkers, and after the formal ceremonies, they dispersed over the grounds to visit the graves, decorated with American flags, of the local soldiers who had served their nation, in various wars and in peacetime.
It all led me to think about those wars, the whys and the wherefores of those wars.
Of course, there was the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, which created us as a free nation. And we all know about the Civil War. We studied that one extensively in school, and we are still kind of in a state of shock that this country we love actually went to war with itself. What a tragedy that was.
The Spanish-American War is more of a curiosity. Very few people understand what that one was all about, and the ones who do apparently don't like to talk about it.
The First World War was supposed to be The War To End All Wars, but it was followed by the Second World War just 20 years later -- and millions died in each of them. Everyone in our nation seemed to get involved in the World Wars. There were war bonds to sell and buy, war industries to work in, war relief packages to assemble and send, there were wartime movies and songs that everybody sang -- and everyone knew someone who was in uniform.
The Korean Conflict was not called a war because it had never been declared by Congress, as prescribed by the Constitution, but it was a terrible war nonetheless. It became an embarrassment to Americans because nobody really understood what it was about -- more know about Korea from the television show "M.A.S.H." than from any study of history -- but Americans and others suffered and died there in great numbers.
And then there was Vietnam. The ugly "conflict" in Vietnam divided our nation as had seldom happened before. It separated generation from generation, and, in many ways, it led to the downfall of two American presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The outcry against the Vietnam War was trumpeted, once again, as the end of war in our time -- but alas, that wasn't to be.
In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor, Kuwait, and the United Nations authorized a force to remove him. The United States was one of 34 nations in the coalition that sent Saddam packing.
Then, a terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, led us into another war -- or conflict, if you prefer, since this one was never officially declared either. We invaded Afghanistan because we knew that Osama bin Laden, who had masterminded the 9/11 attacks, was based there with his forces.
But Osama got away somehow, and so we invaded and occupied Iraq instead. Nobody knows why. Oh we were told that the "terrorists hate us for our freedom" and we have to "stop them over there before they come after us here at home" -- but most of us don't buy that. The Iraqis never did anything to us and they had nothing to do with what happened on 9/11.
And we, as a nation, have never been called upon to participate in this conflict. There are no war bonds this time, no patriotic songs or movies, no vital industries. We're told to go shopping the keep the economy rolling along. Few people know anyone in uniform, much less anyone who has died. Somehow, this is not what we think of as "The American Way" -- but what is?
So, the wars to end all wars have not succeeded, and we are still killing and dying in a foreign land where we do not belong. Sadly, it looks like the traditions of Memorial Day will last for a long time to come, and more students will be reciting "In Flanders' Fields" in springtime cemeteries.
To quote Pete Seeger's great song, "When will we ever learn?"
(A version of this column originally appeared on the op-ed page of the Daily Press of Ashland, Wisconsin.)
May 27, 2008
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John Smart lives in Park Falls, is a member of the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the United Nations, the board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network.