Americans will launch the summer season with their annual celebration of Memorial Day this weekend, most taking a bit of time from our barbecues, beach and lake visits and cornhole games to honor those who gave their lives to keep our nation free.
It’s a fitting homage to our fallen heroes, but it really is too brief and understated to fully convey the level of respect our armed forces deserve. As a society, we could do so much better.
We too often trivialize the notion of war in our everyday nomenclature. A football game might be referred to as being “won in the trenches” by warriors of the gridiron. Every hard push in the boardroom is a “battle” and when the enemy is amassing, it’s time to “pull out the big guns.”
In particular, the national media furiously hype political campaign “wars” and candidates’ “war chests,” as if the “battles” they wage are somehow akin to the real kind instead of what they really are: People in suits talking.
All this is harmless for the most part, a way to borrow familiar terms to create an idea. But it’s worth remembering the kind of wars that truly fit the definition and have more than a symbolic meaning to those who have fought them, and still do. Despite the nominal end to combat efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops remain engaged against enemies in the Middle East, and casualties have not ended. Thousands have been lost, and tens of thousands more returned home with wounds visible and psychological, many struggling to adjust to civilian life in a country that hasn’t kept its promises to them.
Their foes don’t just use words and ideas as weapons. They kill for real, with pipe bombs, assault weapons, IEDs, all designed to end lives, not change minds. In Syria, Afghanistan, the Sudan and dozens of other global hot spots, people don’t just argue unpleasantly over ideas, they kill each other. However bare-knuckled we think our political divisions to be, they pale in comparison to the overt violence real combat warriors face.
Yet all our phony baloney “warfare” on this side of a wide ocean -- waged over politics, cultural shifts, economic upheaval, now even what bathroom schoolchildren can use -- is made possible by those who fight the real ones against tangible enemies. In particular, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice have picked up the tab for the freedoms we mostly take for granted.
It’s worth noting we’re in an era when few elected leaders claim military service on their resumes. Only three of 23 who began the race for president wore the nation’s uniform, one time a given for politicians of a certain generation. But as the World War II, Korean and Vietnam generations have eased into retirement, most baby boomers and those younger lack the firsthand experience of warfare to provide perspective as they form policies that affect our armed forces. Having such experience is not a pre-requisite for a commander in chief, but walking in the boots of our nation’s troops is a good way to understand what sending young people to war really means.
And too often this campaign for the White House has focused less on national defense than it should, beyond the usual hawk-dove patterned responses to how our national security decisions should be handled. It inspires little confidence in believing they have a full understanding of the threats we face and how to address them effectively. In fact, the presumptive Republican nominee, despite voicing his support for the military, famously chided Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war John McCain for having the audacity to be captured. That’s a lack of respect you can’t walk back.
Still, politicians are always eager to ride the military’s coattails to earn votes by saying all the right things. It’s another to put that into action with policies on engagement and budgetary proposals that are realistic and consistent strategies to put troops in harm’s way only when no other recourse if available. It should be the goal of every president to avoid filling our military cemeteries with one more headstone than necessary.
And the least partisan issue of all should be a vow to improve our Veterans Affairs’ resources to meet the needs of our returning troops. The reforms in place are a good start, but have yet to trickle completely down to those who need health and other services without unacceptable wait times and poor response.
There was a day when politics stopped at the water’s edge, when the nation rallied behind its national leaders as enemies threatened and flag-covered caskets began arriving from overseas. We need to recapture that notion and agree to disagree on any number of domestic issues but unite as one to honor our fallen and current military heroes with more cohesive support at home.
At the very least, we should acknowledge the “wars” waged here at home in no way compare to the real thing our valiant heroes have fought, won and died for. Their sacrifice made all of our internal dust-ups possible by preserving a free society founded on the principles of honest disagreement and open expression. We should keep them in mind year-round as we continue the messy and contentious task of building and refining the nation their bravery made possible.
To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.