On some social media sites, there's an option to describe a relationship you're in. When it come to my relationship with Memorial Day, I have to say "It's complicated."
Memorial Day is when we don our national sad face to give honor to those who have given their lives in America's wars. "Freedom isn't free," we are told continually, and the price of that freedom is the blood of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have gone to war on our behalf and made the ultimate sacrifice.
But for me, it's hard to separate the courage of our fighting forces from the idiotic uses to which they have been put. Take the Mexican-American War, fought from 1846 to 1848. This war was little more than an American land grab from a relatively weaker state to the south. The war started after manufactured outrage that "American blood had been spilled on American soil" by Mexican troops. Of course the American soil in question was contested land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers in Texas, itself just recently annexed (read "stolen") from Mexico. All told, the war resulted in 13,000 Americans dead and about 16,000 Mexicans. But, we ended up with clear title to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona,Nevada, Utah, California and bits of other states. Quite a haul for the price!
But even in 1846, this war was hugely controversial. Former president John Quincy Adams opposed it. Abe Lincoln, in prescient echoes of future wars based on lies, wanted to be shown the precise spot on which American blood had been shed. Northerner abolitionists feared that slavery would spread into the new territories, tipping Congress toward the slave owning states and moving the eradication of their blighted practice into the unforeseeable future.
So when I celebrate Memorial Day, do I celebrate the bravery of the fighting forces of the Mexican American War? Aside from a gain of land, the conflict they took part in only exacerbated the fractiousness of a jittery nation -- tensions that would explode into civil war 13 years later.
Do I celebrate the War of 1812, an attempt to grab Canadian land? That war killed 2260 Americans and 1600 Brits, not to mention the 13,000 Americans and 3300 Brits who died from disease and other causes.
How about the Spanish-American War, started over unsubstantiated claims that the perfidious Spanish had sunk the battleship Maine? We ended up with Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and Guantanamo. The war killed 345 American soldiers and sailors in battle and another 2500 from disease. More than 60,000 Spanish were killed from combat or disease. Our reneging on giving self-rule to the recently liberated Filipinos resulted in another 6000 American deaths, up to 20,000 Filipino military dead and 200,000 dead Filipino civilians.
We could move into the modern era by celebrating the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, the 38,000 dead in Korea, and the 6000 killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But what do we celebrate? The often stupid wars that put our soldiers into harm's way? The soldier's own bravery and noble willingness to fight and to die? The strength and riches that came even from from wars launched on lies? Do we celebrate only the good parts (D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, Midway) of the good wars while ignoring the ugly parts (Dresden, Hiroshima, Mai Lai)?
But as for freedom, it's hard to see which wars directly contributed to our freedom. The Revolutionary War? Sure, though you could make the argument that a little more civility by the British and a little less American paranoia might have achieved the same result with less bloodshed. The Civil War? Slaves received paper freedom, but would have to fight another 150 years -- up until and beyond the present day -- to gain a small portion of that promised equality. World War II? Finally, a war in which an insatiable world-dominating leader had to be pushed back. But we must conveniently forget the penalties assessed against Germany after World War I that set the stage for Hitler's rise.
Like I said, it's complicated.
Which leads me to thinking. Is it only soldiers who gave me my freedom? What about the many civilians who died to bring freedom to Americans? The freedom riders, preachers and agitators who faced angry mobs of their own people. How about William Lloyd Garrison, kicked out of his hometown of Newburyport for speaking against the locally-profitable slave trade? How about Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, who died in Mississippi to bring the vote the African Americans? How about James Meredith, who desegregated U Miss? Or the suffragists who made the first cracks in the glass ceiling that preventing capable women from expressing their natural talents? Or the strikers who agitated for fair wages, 8-hour work days and weekends off? Or the gay rights activists who stood up to millennia of abuse to demand that they be treated as equals? Or the progressive legislators and city organizers would fought for their constituents' dignity? Or the visionary politicians who saw that national parks, clean water and clean air were an indispensable part of the of the American birthright?
I honor those who stood up to their fears and chose to fight in our nation's wars. But they did not bring me freedom. In only one case did we have an enemy serious enough to seize our territory. Freedom has been fought over and fought for within our national borders. We citizens are the ones who can grant or withhold freedom from one another. Our wars may gain territory and keep aggressors at bay. But freedom? That's something that you and I must fight for every day of our lives. And against our fellow citizens, whom we must meet on the battlefield of reason and civility and with weapons of wisdom, wit and patience.
Happy Memorial Day.