In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
I have a problem with Memorial Day. It’s not that I don’t understand it; I do. It’s not that I don’t have any skin in the game. My brother served in the Cold War and later in a hot one, in Fallujah, and I have a son currently serving in Afghanistan.
No, the problem is a disconnect between what we want the deaths of soldiers to mean and what they really do mean, from a military perspective. In ordinal terms, those meanings are (a great deal) and (not much).
I just finished reading We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, a commanding officer’s account of a seminal battle in Ia Drang, Vietnam. While General Moore, the author, goes out of his way to humanize his soldiers, what is striking about the book is not their sacrifices (and let’s be clear, there was a hell of a lot of that; men seriously wounded who fought on, who tried to pull wounded comrades to safety, who literally threw themselves onto grenades to save their fellows). What is striking is how little those meant.
The battle in the Ia Drang in 1965 valley wasn’t for some territorial objective; its rationale was simply to engage and learn about the enemy–to see how well men and helicopters worked together.
The consequence was that hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese died, hundreds more were wounded, hundreds of thousands of dollars of ordinance and equipment was expended, destroyed, captured and/or just lost.
And more importantly, the total significance of all of this death and destruction was no more than that of a boxing match.
Once you realize that, you realize what war is about. It’s about depleting resources. In the cold war, the resource was money. The US outspent the USSR on nuclear weapons and weapon systems. No shot was fired. We simply spent our opponent into the ground.
In Vietnam, the resource was people. General Westmoreland thought a “kill ratio” of 10-20 enemy killed for each American soldier was acceptable. Acceptable.
But that that doesn’t take account of is that human beings are not fungible. You can’t assign the same value to John Smith and Jane Black. They’re different people, each valuable. But war demands that we treat them as if those are simply the names we assign to two interchangeable parts.
General Moore’s book tries to humanize the dead and wounded and living by telling you where each came from, how old each was, whether they had a family, that sort of thing. But the moment it does that, it ceases to be about the battle. Because it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the battle whether it was a family man who gave up his place on a helicopter for a worse wounded comrade (and then was shot and died) or a slacker who tried to pull his officer to safety (and who was then shot through the heart and died). Their humanity has no military significance.
The same goes for the enemy, who died by the thousands in the same battle, only of course, we don’t know about their backgrounds, villages, families, education. Their hopes for the future. They’re no more fungible than Americans, but here they are simply the enemy.
I am reminded of a scene from Harold and Maude:
Memorial Day celebrates the sacrifice, but fails to understand what is sacrificed. It perpetuates the myth that these deaths were heroic in some meaningful way, special, when there was usually nothing heroic about them. People meant something in life, but in death were merely cogs in a machine. And that’s why I have a problem with Memorial Day.