The last Monday of May is set aside as Memorial Day in the United States. A national public holiday, it is intended as a day of remembrance for all American military personnel who were killed in active combat. Official commemorations focus on themes of patriotism and sacrifice. These topics, while comforting, serve to obscure the imperialist and predatory nature of American wars in pursuit of political objectives.
Rather than engage in mindless flag-waving drivel, this day should provide an opportunity to examine why so many generations have served in US imperial wars overseas. First, some relevant background context; the first Memorial Day event was started by African American Civil War veterans, meeting at the site of a former Confederate military encampment. In May 1865, ten thousand black soldiers held a parade in Charleston to honour and rebury their fallen comrades.
They commemorated the sacrifices of their fellow soldiers, not to agitate for more wars, but to remember the heavy price they paid to gain their emancipation from slavery. Interestingly, this year, when Retired Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter, spoke of the crucial role of black veterans in starting Memorial Day, the organisers of the commemorative event in Hudson, Ohio, cut off his microphone.
Memorial Day has always been contradictory
Decoration Day, as the holiday was first known, was originated officially by former Union general John Logan, in 1868. Conceived as a way of honouring Civil War veterans who fought for the North, it involved decorating the graves of the war dead with flowers. The former Confederate states implemented their own version of memorialising their war dead, and this contradictory situation remained for decades following the conclusion of the Civil War.
While American participation in both the world wars expanded the meaning and scope covered by Memorial Day, it was officially mandated as a public holiday by the federal government in 1971. Intended as a measure to counteract the growing domestic antiwar movement, the holiday has involved patriotic themes, emphasising sacrifice and valour. However, the manner of remembering the war dead was contested, not only by civil rights and antiwar activists, but by Vietnam War veterans themselves.
The US Congress, when declaring Memorial Day a holiday in 1971, took no account of rising US casualties in Vietnam. They considered making the day a public event, associated with summer holidays, BBQs and family picnics. A number of Vietnam veterans, incensed that the day was being cooped into a celebration of US militarism, decided to take action.
Professor Elise Lemire, writing in the Washington Post, noted that Vietnam veterans protested turning Memorial Day into a propaganda instrument to agitate for further predatory wars. They rejected the commercialisation of the day, and the underlying premise that America’s Vietnam War was a ‘noble’ undertaking.
In Massachusetts, the chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War group organised a march, following the pathway taken by American patriots during the 1776 war of independence, thus associating their sacrifice with traditional patriotism. This nullified the frequent charge that the antiwar movement were ‘traitors’ or unpatriotic. As they arrived on Boston Common, 10 000 people had gathered to support their antiwar stance.
They emphasised that Memorial Day should not be used to glorify the US military, or disguise the criminal actions of US soldiers in Vietnam with noble-sounding yet hollow cliches about ‘fighting for freedom.’ Indeed, the US ruling class has a long track record of propagandising for future military adventures, wrapping itself in the cloak of purported ‘humanitarian’ motivations.
Let’s stop misusing World War 2 analogies to disguise the imperialist agenda of wars of conquest. Cynically portraying every officially designated enemy of the US as a ‘new Hitler’, the American financial and military-industrial oligarchy cunningly deploys the ‘good war’ rationalisation to indoctrinate its population into supporting new military interventions.
Prior to the 1989-90 US invasion of Panama, we were inundated with saturation coverage of the Hitler-like behaviour of Panama’s President Manuel Noriega. A dictator and strongman, we were informed that US military intervention – code named Operation Just Cause – was necessary to oust a ‘new Hitler’. After doing a modicum of research, one could find out that Noriega was indeed a long-term CIA asset, whose drug-trafficking was tolerated as he was a studious product of US military intelligence and training.
When Noriega the monster could no longer be controlled, he was ousted in a military operation that killed at a conservative estimate hundreds of ordinary Panamanians. The official US government rhetoric of nobility and humanitarian motivations reeks of sickening hypocrisy.
Memorial Day is not a platform for aggrandising conflict or agitating for future aggressions. Whether it be Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, US military defeats – for that is what they were – cannot be deployed into falsified narratives about the nobility of sacrifice. Future generations must know the imperialist character and toxic legacies of these invasions. We would do well to channel Memorial Day into a vehicle for a peaceful future. We must not forget the reasons why we remember.