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May 24th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Memorial Day reflections

Freethought San Marcos: A column

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. Hankins

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10 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Memorial Day reflections

  1. Lamar,
    “So I remember those, both civilians and combatants, who died at American hands”

    This is the most insulting thing I have ever read on Memorial day. Our soldiers are not responsible for our foreign policy. We are suppose to use this day to honor the American soldiers who have fallen in combat. For you to use this occasion to honor the combatants of our enemy and equate them with our war dead is despicable and another attempt to push your strange personal philosophy on Mercury readers. You dishonor our war dead.

    Our soldiers died so that you have the right to write this kind of snide trollop. At least respect them for that.

    “I remember the horrors that all our wars have wrought.”

    You have not seen the horror of war so you have no idea of what you speak.

  2. “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.”

    “…If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.”

    Lt. Col. John McRae -. May 3, 1915

    From Sean Wardwell, Newstreamz May 25th, 2009. “This Martian life:On Memorial Day

    I would suggest that those who have read Lamars twisted Memorial Day rant, read Sean’s writings on Memorial day. He does a much better job than I could ever do at explaining what is wrong with Lamar’s thinking.

  3. I’m sorry that you perceived my reflections as a rant. Two others wrote me privately with these thoughts:

    Margret Hofmann: I appreciate that you quoted me in your column today. It is good to know at least ONE person who shares one’s sentiment. (I actually do know a whole lot more people who do.) I really believe that I get ever more infuriated, year after year, watching the glorification ceremonies of the institution of war. We ought to hang our heads in shame that in all these thousands of years we have not come up with a better idea to solve conflicts between our heads of state than with dropping explosives on people. And whoever drops the most, and does it the fastest, “wins” the war. Whatever that means.

    Bill S.: My experience (with war) was deepened by friendships with students who were returning veterans of this terrible war (Vietnam) – the better I knew these men, the more aware I was of how deeply they had been scarred by the experience. One in particular had been a Special Forces assassin, operating behind enemy lines, and had been wounded, patched up, and sent back four or five times. He had killed face to face, with his bare hands, and talked about situations where survival simply meant that you were lucky enough to get off the first shot. He “knew” that he would never be normal, and was very anxious that he might even end up becoming a danger to others. He was at heart a gentle man, but he was also scary. This is as much a paradigm of what war does to us as the physically, visibly wounded warrior. “When will we ever learn?” Most importantly, when will we see clearly how deeply war-making is embedded in our social structures and our economic system?

    At the end of this solemn Memorial Day holiday, I wanted to thank you for helping me focus my mind and heart on the deep tragedy of war.

  4. Charles Sims said, “Our soldiers died so that you have the right to write this kind of snide trollop. At least respect them for that.”

    Mr. Sims, soldiers serving the will of the US state and its corporate backers died for many things, but the one thing they did not die for was freedom. My understanding of freedom is the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness; and the right to own and freely exchange property for mutual benefit, without being subject to initiatory violence and coercion. Let me get this straight: Because we want our lives, liberty and property secured, there must exist an organization that is funded by….taking our lives, liberty and property? For their salaries, the soldiers rely on the cops to threaten us with prison for refusing to hand over our property to the state — and if we resist their theft, we are killed. I relish the day when tough, self-reliant guys like you will bear the costs of your own actions and refrain from pointing guns at others’ heads, by proxy, to pay for things that the free market could provide cheaper and better, and more ethically — things like defense. The centralized state and the economic elites who most benefit from it have little interest in not engaging in warfare at the drop of a dime, because all they have to do is inflate the money supply, steal from the populace via taxes, and enslave the citizenry via conscription — and propagandize the populace into flag-waving mental oblivion through government schools and the statist media outlets. As for all the wars in our history, only the Revolutionary War, and to some extent the Civil War, involved Americans defending themselves against an aggressor state. The Civil War was unnecessary to ending slavery and was provoked by Lincoln to maintain Washington’s authority over the South; WWI was an total horror waged by none but violent, racist, expansionist states; a war that the US state lengthened by propagandizing its host populace into supporting and senselessly joining the slaughter; WWII was an extension of the idiotic, brutal agreements ending the first world war, and all warring states comported themselves with an utter disregard for human life. Hitler was no threat to the US, and anybody who wanted him taken out should have acted on that desire without relying on violence to acquire the means to do so, and without incinerating thousands of noncombatants. The only Americans who ever legitimately fought fascism were those who did so on their own time with their own money in Spain in the 1930s, before fascism became unfashionable — and those Americans were persecuted by the US government after it helped Franco take the country, thereby emboldening Hitler and making another world war more likely.
    Sims quoted a line from a poem asking the reader to remember the war dead, lest they have died in vain. The best way to give their deaths meaning is by relinquishing the initiation of force as a way to solve social problems. The best way to give their deaths meaning is to abolish the central bank, the income tax, and better yet, every violent, coercive monopoly in this land — all governments.

  5. Lamar,
    See what happens when you start stirring the pot with some of your writings. You get fellow travelers like Mr. Shusui all excited and they want to run outside and show everyone their new tinfoil hat. Where are the black helicopters when we need them?

  6. Lamar,

    You should do a column, using local issues, about how voluntary, widespread adherence to basic intellectual integrity might change the face of contemporary political discourse. I’m sure you already agree, but for the sake of other readers, I’ll predict that the near-universal practice of using ad hominem attacks is one phenomenon that would largely disappear if most people were raised and educated to respect the free marketplace of ideas, in which the use of insults rather than sound and valid arguments constitutes mean-spirited, unfair dealing. Edward Danner lays out a code of conduct for effective rational discussion in his book “Attacking Faulty Reasoning.” For most people to use such a code in discussions about important issues would neutralize much of the nonsense we are raised, educated, and socialized to believe, such as the idea that abstractions like nations and ideologies are of more value than living, breathing human beings. America doesn’t exist, supernatural beings don’t exist — all things that defy reason, experience, and empathy, are hideous fictions that destroy lives and enslave countless minds. I urge anyone who has not begun to live an examined life to start down that road for everyone’s sake.

  7. Sniiper, there are things you can do to increase your attention span, such as watching less television, getting aerobic exercise, getting more sleep, having a snack before sustained mental activity (eat something with a good balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein), using more than one sense to process information, decreasing the amount of stress in your life, doing memory exercises (like studying a picture for a few minutes and then attempting to list all the items in the picture). If this doesn’t work, then I recommend taking a Continuous Performance Test, like the TOVA, to see if you have ADHD, in which case there is medication available that can help.

  8. I like that scene in “A River Runs Through It” where Brad Pitt is being taught the finer points of writing by his gruff father. Brad starts by delivering a ten page paper for his father’s review. His dad says “shorten it” and that repeats itself several times until Brad is down to one page. Not an especially welcome concept to those given to bloviation.

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