Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Every year, around Memorial Day, my thoughts turn to a time back in 1968 when the report came to friends, a mother and father in Beaumont, that their medic son had been killed in Vietnam. The tragedy was worsened by the knowledge that both mother and father were absolutely opposed to that war. Their son’s death affected them for the rest of their lives. They never found peace after his death.
In spite of the decision of the Congress in 1971 to change Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May, I prefer to recognize its traditional date. I do it, not by having a picnic with my family, or wearing a poppy on my lapel, or attending a sporting event, though I have no quarrel with people who do these things. I just remember.
I remember the horrors that all our wars have wrought. The heartbroken parents, wives, sisters, brothers, and all the others who have lost a family member or a friend to war.
I remember the mangled bodies of the Civil War battles (625,000) immortalized in Walt Whitman’s poems and prose.
I remember the casualties of the American Revolutionary War — 25,000.
I remember those killed in World War II, the war of my mother and father — 405,399.
I remember the dead from World War I — 116,516.
I remember the dead from my generation’s war, the War in Vietnam — 58,209.
And from the Korean War, I remember the 36,516 service men and women who perished.
The War of 1812 killed 20,000 Americans; the Mexican-American War killed 13,283; the Phillipine-American War killed 4,196.
I remember those who died in our smaller wars – The Northwest Indian War (1,221), the Spanish-American War (2,446), and all the other wars, invasions, occupations, and incursions that we have experienced in our brief history.
And now I remember the American dead from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — 4,986 and counting.
But it would be wrong to reflect and remember only the Americans killed in our many wars. It would be callous and indifferent toward humanity to value American lives over the lives of all the civilians and other soldiers, both allies and enemies, who died in all our wars. They, too, should be remembered.
So I remember those, both civilians and combatants, who died at American hands – the Native Americans of this continent, and the people of Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, Burma, China, Haiti, Cuba, Lebanon, Granada, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany, Japan.
In World War II, civilian casualties in Dresden may have been 40,000 or more. The civilian casualties in Hiroshima reached 140,000; in Nagasaki, 80,000.
On this Memorial Day, I want to remember the sacrifice of all the human beings who have died in the creation, building, and expansion of America and its empire. It has been a terrible toll. It has left many Americans insensitive to the suffering that war causes. I fear that the ease with which we Americans have gone to war, particularly over the last fifty years, is an indication that we have lost our way as a moral example among the community of nations.
As a country, we have not suffered through war on our mainland (and here I do not intend to slight in the least those Americans bombed at Pearl Harbor, or the Native Americans driven from their ancestral lands) since our own Civil War. No one alive today has a personal remembrance of the horrors that were experienced by both the north and the south during the Civil War. For the last 150 years, we have exported our warring to other countries, sometimes when we had no choice, but most of the time to carry out policies to benefit perceived US interests. The ease with which George W. Bush led us to war in Iraq was frightening to me seven years ago and it remains frightening to me today.
While the shock of the destruction of both the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and 9/11 had a sobering effect on most Americans, it was not war in any conventional sense. Terrorism in the United States, whether perpetrated by domestic or international actors, is not the same as war (though it can be a tactic used in war). It is frightening, but it does not interrupt and destroy the lives of an entire population as war does. It does not lay waste major cities.
This Memorial Day, I will remember all those everywhere who have suffered from war, especially those who died and those who have lived to remind us what war is like. One such person is my friend Margret Hofmann, a longtime Austin resident, who lived through World War II as a teenager in Germany, and who sent these thoughts to me in 2002:
“(M)y most devastating memories are those of the firebombings of Dresden on February 13-14, 1945. Three raids utterly destroyed this beautiful city, killing at least 35,000 people, possibly even more than twice as many. But not the guilty who perpetrated those horrendous atrocities on minorities, nor the leaders responsible for unleashing the war. They were hiding in sturdy bunkers. Instead, as in most bombing attacks the world over, the victims were children, were the old and the sick and were thousands of refugees. But, a war was raging, and all of us were the enemy.”
“The raids on Dresden were briefly mentioned in a few newspapers. No meticulous search for those who had perished could be carried out. Interment in mass graves took the place of dignified burials. There was no outpouring of generosity, no collection of toys for the surviving children, no financial compensation. Yes, we were promised extra rations of coffee and of meat. Three ounces each.”
“Again I am reminded of the (observation): ‘America, you are more fortunate than our old continent. Your fine buildings are not in ruins, not in ashes…’”
“Three of them are. Three too many, to be sure. And each life lost, anywhere in the world, is precious and is mourned by someone.”
This Memorial Day, may we all mourn and remember all who have died from war. And may that remembrance include a vow to put an end to the great engine of war that President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print