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Like every third Saturday in May, May 16th was Armed Forces Day, a tribute to the people who serve in the United States military. And of course next Monday (May 25 th) is Memorial Day, which honors those who lost their lives while serving in these same armed forces. So first we recognize the living…then we mourn the dead.

Memorial Day

The confluence of these observances pains my heart. Because while on one level it’s right and good to appreciate those who serve, I’m haunted by questions: About those living, who are they actually serving, and to what ends? And concerning the deceased, who and what did they really serve by dying?

In certain factions of the U.S. government and populace, it has frequently been a very short step from appreciating the armed forces to glorifying war; from celebrating the military to suffering the predictable results.

The common response is that they served their country. But in truth they served their government. These are not synonymous, as Mark Twain made clear in speaking of his allegiances: “Loyalty to country, always. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” And in certain factions of the U.S. government and populace, it has frequently been a very short step from appreciating the armed forces to glorifying war; from celebrating the military to suffering the predictable results.

So between Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day lays a tragic irony, one poetically proclaimed by WW I combat veteran Archibald MacLeish:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say. It is you who must say this.
They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.

And remember them we do … as flowers on graves next Monday will attest. But remembering is inherently rear-facing—hence another question: How do we reduce the need for those flowers in the future?

They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.

It’s a troubling prospect, because so much of our national life and our economic system is, and has always been, tied to warfare. Congress approved its last formal declaration of war during World War II, but we have since seen an incessant stream of military actions. In fact the U.S. has been at war more than 90% of its existence.

America’s Founding Fathers recognized the need to serve the common defense, and that need remains. But do we think for a moment that their hope and vision for this nation was of unending war? Yet despite President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s post-WW II warning about the excessive influence of the Military/Industrial Complex, we now have an entire political and economic system that’s set up to profit from it.

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The U.S. is the #1 arms dealer in the world—a fact that transcends party politics. In its last six years the Obama administration brokered more weapons sales that any administration since WW II. When asked at a 2013 hearing whether it was pushing arms exports aggressively enough, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Tom Kelly, responded: “[We are] advocating on behalf of our companies and doing everything we can to make sure that these sales go through… and we’re constantly thinking of how we can do better.” That is, how they can better help American weapons manufacturers make gobs of money arming other countries to the teeth.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.

On April 7, 2017, the U.S. launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. The next day Raytheon Corp, maker of the 59 Tomahawk missiles fired, opened 2.5% higher on Wall Street, adding more than $1 billion to its market value. The shares of other weapons makers including Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics and Northrop-Grumman also each rose as much as 1%, collectively gaining nearly $5 billion in value even as the broader market fell. All of these companies have lucrative weapons contracts with the U.S. government.

They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.

I don’t know how to de-incentivize the war machine and its profiteers. I do know that the current state of affairs is wrong. It does not honor the intent of the framers of our Constitution. It does not honor those who serve(d) in the military, nor those who died in that service. It does not honor or serve the citizens of this nation, because when more than half of all federal discretionary income goes to the military, there’s far less for vital public services. And it certainly does not serve the millions worldwide forever impacted by all the forms of violence perpetrated by perpetual war.

What would honor all of these would be for us to look honestly and bravely at the state of things, and in the service of peace and the common welfare, find ways to bring about needed changes. It would also help if every member of the armed services, when ordered to jump into battle, asked “Why?” before “How high?”

Because not all of America’s calls to arms are just, or deserving of support. And because between Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day, and eternally, the young dead soldiers and every military person and civilian who might yet die, call out to us still:

Peter Farriday 200

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say. It is you who must say this.
They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.

Peter Farriday

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