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Friday, May 27, 2016

On war and a suggested Memorial Day Promise

As Memorial Day approaches, I think it is important to reflect on both the memory of those who have died in battle on our behalf and also on why we fight and die.  As is my habit in reflection, I turn to poetry and the writings of others to help me organize my seemingly conflicted thoughts into something more (I hope) cohesive.

There are wars, usually unbidden, that must be fought.  In defense of something real and something valuable, like preserving lives, and (though the word has, of late, been wrongly worn as thin as a politician's promise) liberty.
Some would have us bow
in bondage to their dreams
of little gods who lay down laws to live by
but all these inventions
arise from fear of love
and open-hearted tolerance and trust  
Well screw the rule of law
we want the rule of love
enough to fight and die to keep it coming
if that sounds like confusion
brother think again
we know exactly what we chose  
Each one lost
is everyone's loss you see
each one lost is a vital part of you and me
   - Bruce Cockburn, from Each One Lost
Cockburn is quoted, in discussing the lyrics above, as saying, ""On the way into Kandahar Airfield from Ottawa, our little group spend a few hours at Camp Mirage, a Canadian staging base in the Middle East. As we were about to board our next plane, we found ourselves part of a Ramp Ceremony, honouring the remains of two young Canadian Forces members who had been killed that day and were being sent home. One of the saddest and most moving scenes I've ever been privileged to witness...this song is dedicated to the memory of Major Yannick P├ępin and Corporal Jean-Francois Drouin."

There are, though, wars that are simply wars.  No higher value or need other than a collective someones' greed, or vanity, or beliefs, or hubris.  Where lives don't seem to count and don't seem to matter to those who would direct their actions.
God, damn the hands of glory
That hold the bloody firebrand high
Close the book and end the story
Of how so many men have died
Let the world retain in memory
That mighty tongues tell mighty lies
And if mankind must have an enemy
Let it be his warlike pride
Let it be his warlike pride
     - Bruce Cockburn, from It's Going Down Slow

There are also wars that wantonly scatter life across soil for profit and gain.  Only profit and gain for a safely isolated few, mind you, not to be shared with those whose lives will be torn by the cost of war.
Him seems too little what long he possessed.
Greedy and grim, no golden rings
he gives for his pride; the promised future
forgets he and spurns, with all God has sent him,
Wonder-Wielder, of wealth and fame.
Yet in the end it ever comes
that the frame of the body fragile yields,
fated falls; and there follows another
who joyously the jewels divides,
the royal riches, nor recks of his forebear.  - Anonymous, from Beowulf

Ike warned about the risks of the (to his mind, necessary) military-industrial complex, with its potential for institutionalized war profiteering:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.  (Dwight D. Eisenhower

There are wars that seem to make no sense, no matter how hard you look for justifiable reasons from any perspective even slightly human.
I do not understand why men make war. 
Is it because when death is multiple and expanding, there
among the odd assemblages, arbitrary and unnamed, there
among the shrivelled mountains, distorted and hollow, there
among the liquid farms and cities, cold and sallow, there
among the splintered bones of children, women, men and cattle
there and only there, the eerie head of power is being born?
     - Juan Filipe Herrera, from War Voyeurs

This then, should be our Memorial Day Promise: that we will always do everything in our power to ensure we spend the very precious capital of life on only those wars where real need is present.  Let us look hard and critically at any cry to take up arms and be certain we can honestly live (if we live) with the memory of our reasons when we eventually face the ghosts of those who rose to the call.

In this way we best honor the sacrifice and memory of those who have fought, and those who still fight, and those who will undoubtedly fight in the future, on our behalf.