“In the title of my talk on a world without war, I have posed two questions: is it desirable? And, is it feasible? After the many millions of lives lost in the two World Wars of the last century, a world without war is assuredly most desirable…not only is a war-free world desirable; it is now necessary, it is essential, if humankind is to survive…humankind has acquired the technical means to destroy its own species and to accomplish this, deliberately or inadvertently, in a single action. In the nuclear age the human species has become an endangered species” – Joseph Rotblat, October 8th 2004
Today is Memorial Day. Surprised? No, probably not. But, do you know its origins? Do you commemorate the day? Do you ask yourself these questions?
To begin, a brief history of Memorial Day: “Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War. Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic…and was first observed on 30 May 1868…While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day.”
What does all of this mean today? For many, not much. The three-day weekend that accompanies the day is usually utilized as a mini-vacation and not a weekend along with a day of remembrance. And why should it? We are so disconnected from the wars being fought and the troops coming home that Memorial Day is about BBQ’s and the Indie 500 for many Americans. We support the wars but not the soldiers.
War is a part of American history. Fighting, bloodshed, bombs, swords, guns, conflict; it is as much a part of our country as apple pie or baseball. American involvement in war dates back to before we were even a country.
July 4, 1675 through August 12, 1676: our first recorded war. It’s called the King Philip’s War and it was the New England Colonies on one side and the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Nipmuck Indians on the other.
Some say that the history of America began with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607. By those calculations, we began to fight wars 68 years after we settled into America. Of course, we began fighting Native Americans right away, but it was almost seven decades before we officially entered a war. Frankly, when I discovered this I was surprised it took us so long.
Since 1675 we have been waging war. In 2001 we invaded Afghanistan and in 2003 Iraq. Almost ten years after it began, American soldiers in Iraq crossed the Kuwaiti border on Dec. 18 2011 to start their trek home and bring an official end to the Iraq war (on paper).
The war in Afghanistan is ongoing with soldiers in the numbers of 89,000 still in the war zone. The goal is to have most soldiers home by 2014, but home to what?
About 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq since 2003. More than 4,000 were killed in combat, at least 30,000 suffered permanent injury, and many others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other form of psychological trauma. When I began research for this article I came across many articles with titles such as “Support for our troops at an all time low,” “The Hard Task of Coming Home From War,” and “More Homeless Veterans than Active Duty Soldiers in Iraq.”
Much, like our failing education system, does not prepare students for life and work; we are neither preparing our soldiers for war nor their return home. While the national unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, the unemployment rate for veterans aged 20-24 is more than three times that — an unbelievable 30 percent.
In 2007 a report came out that said “Veterans make up one in four homeless people in the United States, though they are only 11% of the general adult population.”
One article I read could not have said it better: “To prepare soldiers for combat, the Army demolishes the individual and reconstructs him as a killing machine. It makes no secret about the method or the goal. That’s what basic training is about. In combat zones, soldiers adapt to sets of rules that have coherence of their own but no application in the civilian entire world…”
This Memorial Day ask, what are veterans coming home to? Why are we fighting these wars? What can we do to help? What can we do to ensure they don’t have to go into battle again?
Honor those who fought before and fight today by asking these questions. More than anything, that will honor them; to find a way to take care of our troops, to find a way to avoid battle, to find a way to honor human life, ask questions.
Image credit: Joe Heller