On Memorial Day veterans have a much greater responsibility than usual to tell the truth and to remind Americans what it is that we are supposed to be remembering. What was supposed to be a day to remember the men and women who died in our wars and to learn something from their deaths, over the years has become a day to wave the flag and not question why they died. On past Memorial Days, people have treated me like a hero, even though I haven’t done anything heroic, and I’m ashamed to say that I accepted their praise. Every handshake and thank you that I received for my service felt tainted with hypocrisy, because I knew that they didn’t understand what they were thanking me for, and furthermore I knew that this misunderstanding was facilitating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I said nothing to change their minds. I felt like a hypocrite, not because of the way America chooses to remember it’s veterans or because of the way America chooses to forget the suffering that we have caused abroad, but because veterans like myself have allowed this to happen. By choosing to accept praise rather than talking about the damage we have done we are preventing justice from being done to the victims of our foreign wars, the innocent civilians who are killed by our bombs and are displaced by our violence. Furthermore, we are endangering the next generation of veterans, because we are not giving them a realistic portrayal of what they are getting involved in.
When we grieve for loved ones who have passed on there is a natural inclination to attach meaning to their death. Senseless deaths are hard for us to deal with, and grieving becomes easier if we believe that they died for something great. The tendency on Memorial Day is to attribute to the deaths of our service men and women lofty ideas like freedom, democracy, and the American way. But we must resist this urge to add meaning to their deaths, because in doing so we are not remembering them, we’re turning them into martyrs, and we are diverting our eyes from painful truths.
We have to ask ourselves honestly, did they die for freedom and democracy? I can tell you that in the case of Iraq, the answer is, sadly, no. Iraqis can vote now, but who cares, because the thing that Iraqis want most is for the occupation to end, and their cries for justice are being ignored. What good are elections when your most basic needs and wishes fall on the def ears of politicians, and what good is a democratic government if everyday you have to be afraid that a bomb will drop on your head. I helped destroy the city of Fallujah. I helped drive about 300, 000 people that used to live in that city into refugee status, and I helped kill several hundred civilians who either refused or weren’t able to leave their homes. That was my contribution to their freedom and democracy, and someday I’ll have to answer to God for that. Over one million Iraqis have lost their lives because of this war, and as for those survived, their lives have been ruined. But what about our freedom and democracy? Did our friends, and brothers, and sisters, and spouses, and children die for that at least? Ironically our freedom and democracy was trampled on by our own government when they lied to us and sent our loved ones off to war.
My friends Travis and Brad deployed to Iraq with me, but they never made it back. Their deaths were not necessary, nor were they for a noble cause. They died for the sins of our government, like so many Iraqis have, and the worst thing that we could do for their memory is to drape a flag on them and enshrine them in heroism. If we did that, nobody would learn anything form their deaths, and the war machine would just roll on, and then my friends’ deaths will have truly been for nothing. The truth is that Travis and Brad were good people who died too young, and that we did not make America a safer place or help Iraqis. The truth is that we participated in something terrible, and telling the truth about what we did does not dishonor the memory of the dead.
Howard Zinn understood the responsibility that veterans have. After serving as a bombardier in World War II he dedicated his life to teaching others about peaceful alternatives to war. He once said that
“We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. “
It’s in his spirit that I’m telling you this today. On past Memorial Days I have not lived up to my responsibilities as a veteran, and from here on out I’ll do all that I can to make sure other Americans do not meet the same end as my friends Travis and Brad did.