May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Reflections

Illinois monument at Vicksburg National Military Park
Illinois monument at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, MS

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States devoted to remembering those who have died while serving in the armed forces. While some mark the day by visiting cemeteries and war memorials, the holiday has taken on somewhat different meanings for others. Some look forward to the ubiquitous sales, parents of school-age children tend to brace themselves for the beginning of the summer vacation season, and many others are content to use the day as another excuse to grill meat.

For me, Memorial Day means that the short break I enjoyed between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the summer term is over and that it is time to return to work. I'm usually rushing around to complete last-minute tasks and wishing I had planned better so I could have a relaxing weekend. Over the last decade or so, however, Memorial Day has also served as an occasion for me to wonder why the U.S. is still at war. On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about a different sort of war.

As the costs of U.S. involvement abroad continue to rise, in both blood and treasure, I wonder how much longer we in the U.S. will be able to afford American exceptionalism and our love of war. I fear that we have not been able to afford it for some time despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise. Our war machine has done considerable harm to our culture and to our standing in the world. We have neglected so many things at home in order to fund our wars. Our infrastructure is broken in many places and so degraded in others that the inevitable costs of repair and replacement are staggering. We've left our returning veterans with dim prospects for efficient health care or employment. We've cut budgets for education and social services and do not seem interested in funding much besides the active duty military we still refer to as "defense spending" and our massive prison system.

But most of all, I find myself thinking about the war we are waging on our own people here at home. In many ways, our nation has gradually come to resemble what our fallen soldiers of the World War II era were fighting to prevent. Our civilian police forces have become increasingly militarized. Our people have virtually no expectation of privacy, something we once regarded as an essential civil liberty. Our justice department spies on the press, and our IRS appears to target the president's political opponents. Drones are being implemented for domestic use. We are slowly turning into an occupied country.

When I think wistfully about those who died in World War II and what they were fighting for, I cannot help feeling that we have let them down in a big way. Blinded by fear, we have willingly exchanged our freedom for "security." Rather than coming to terms with the inevitability of terrorism, we've allowed ourselves to become an authoritarian police state. Is it too late to reverse this trend? I fear it might be. Regardless of who sits in the White House, this place looks less and less like a free country by the day.

On this Memorial Day, I will take a deliberate break from running around trying to get everything ready to return to work and read the U.S. Constitution. As I do so, I will reflect on the brave men and women who gave their lives in service to their country, and I will ask myself whether we don't owe more to their memories than what we have been giving.