I was born during WWII; I remember discussions of the Korean conflict as a youngster; I lived through the disaster of Vietnam as a college-age student, where I watched my friends get “called up” (I was summoned for “Pre-induction” physicals on two occasions but never “ordered to report” for reasons which have never been clear to me); and I have watched students and friends of mine go off to war "for the good of the country” numerous times. As a result, I have lost friends and colleagues in various conflicts and I believe that, as a survivor, I have an obligation to remember their sacrifice, and I’d like to think that I do.
But that’s personal! As one who has always at least attempted to have some grasp of what’s going on in the world, I have been frustrated by the many occasions in which my country has gotten into military conflicts for what have proven to be questionable reasons, and with questionable results. In my personal case, the Vietnam conflict probably was most central to my thinking. The US sort of backed into that conflict, which was actually a civil war between a largely French-trained, largely Catholic, native elite and a substantial portion of the rest of the populace, who had little love for their (then departed) French Colonial occupiers, were mostly non-Catholic, and felt greater sympathy with their Asian neighbors than with the remnants of colonial rule which they had been trying to get rid of since the end of the Japanese conquest of WWII.
When the French abandoned their hopes of continuing their colonial rule in the area in 1954, the US, claiming to believe in the disputed notion that, since there was considerable communist influence on the other side, they HAD to be stopped at all cost because if they got into power, they would lead the entirety of southeastern Asia into Communist rule and, thereby, reduce our influence in the region. This was known as "The Domino Theory." So, starting with “advisors” under Eisenhower, the US gradually built up our involvement to “keep the dominoes from falling.”
This would, of course, lead to major US involvement by the early 1960s and considerable civil conflict within the US itself. Before this conflict ended, there had been considerable sacrifices made by a lot of my generation, but, since the US, apparently, never really had a plan to begin with, we never got our act together to establish an endgame which could serve as even a possible “positive” outcome, no matter how unlikely it seems in retrospect.
Having given these times a lot of thought while living through them and since, I think I have some understanding of how the US got into Vietnam, but I couldn’t then (and still can’t) figure out how we thought we’d ever get out, except by establishing some sort of “American Colonial” rule. In any event, it took someone with the chutzpah of Richard Nixon to end the conflict by just declaring victory and leaving, in spite of the fact that nothing approaching “victory” was ever achieved.
And, from my point of view, much the same can be said for the several conflicts that we have been involved with since Vietnam. We, as a country, have been poking our nose into a whole raft of conflicts for much of the last fifty years with, seemingly, little real understanding of the actual causes behind them (which, all too often, seem to revolve around religious and/or ethnic differences of which we have little understanding and/or ability to deal with).
Now the current conflict in Ukraine, complex as it is, seems considerably easier to understand. Putin and the “leaders” of Russia are unhappy that the Soviet Union (which was something of an outgrowth of the Russian Empire of the past) has split up largely along the racial, ethnic, and cultural lines, which seemed predictable as it collapsed. Naturally enough, restoring something of the greater Russian Empire would enhance Russia’s political power and image, so they would like to move in that direction.
Apparently, Ukraine had been doing fairly well as an independent nation which, it is true, was occupied to some extent by people of largely Russian heritage. Many other countries seem to have objected however, when Russia decided that, since Ukraine used to be a part of Russia, it really had no right to be independent and decided to try to force it into being a part of Russia again. Obviously, a lot of Ukrainians disagreed with that notion and are receiving assistance in their resistance. This seems to me to be the easiest conflict to understand of recent years.
I think that the religious aspect of so much conflict is the most disappointing aspect of human behavior which I have encountered. I confess that while I would argue that I have a belief system which seems to work for me and helps me to establish what are the values I support, I have little trouble in accepting that other people may have beliefs which are not identical to mine. I have spent a fair amount of time over the years thinking about what I would call the universal human values, and I’ve even spent a bit of time attempting to understand the basic beliefs of several of the world’s religions. I confess, that I have found the results of this study confusing with more frequency than I think should be the case.
Still, while there are variations, most established religions seem to support the idea that being kind, treating others fairly, telling the truth, trying to avoid hurting other people and acting in a way which supports other people (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, etc.) are good ideas which should be supported. The specific name of the deity(ies) or principle figures involved may change, but these basic ideas seem pretty constant.
What I can‘t explain, is how (or why) this all seems to change when one examines the actions of the followers of various religions. All to often, what seems to happen is an insistence that everyone is supposed to accept some particular take on religious beliefs and practices or the group of adherents to that position should have the right to force them to do so. I just don’t understand how this makes any sense.
This difficulty even exists between various groups of what purport to be the same religion. Much of the history of European wars in the last 2000 years is actually based on conflicts between branches of Christianity, and that history got even more complicated after the Reformation due to conflicts between various Protestant groups. And that’s to say nothing about the conflicts between religions. Jews, apparently, hate Christians, who, apparently, hate Muslims and they all hate any religion not of “the book.” This, of course, in spite of the fact that most of their basic teachings don’t appear to conflict all that badly.
The great hope of the ”American Experiment,” it has always seemed to me, was to recognize the similarities between religions and establish a place where that concept might flourish. By promising that there would not be an “official” religion in the US, the idea is suggested that many (if not all) religions would be accepted and (with minimal exceptions) would be allowed to coexist. If one considers basic principles, that doesn’t seem like it ought to be all that difficult. Apparently it is, though.
Just recently, Nebraska has passed a new law restricting abortion rights and outlawing “gender-affirmative” care for people under nineteen years of age. If the quick check I have made is correct, that means that a SEVENTEEN year old can enlist in the military; an EIGHTEEN year old can buy a long gun (AR-15 anyone?); but one has to be NINETEEN to decide if one is “transgender,” because such surgical intervention requires an “adult” mind. I confess that I don’t see how that makes sense.
Then, there's the fact that transgender surgery would require consultation with medically trained personnel and, given our private insurance-based healthcare system, parents/guardians would almost certainly have to be involved prior to any surgery, but legislators with NO medical or psychological experience or knowledge believe that they know how to deal with such issues better than professionals trained to do so. I don’t understand how that meets any standard of rationality!
The abortion issue is just as poorly addressed. In the news coverage of the legislative debate, one legislator argued that, “…the God I know doesn’t want us to kill babies.” Again, unless I am completely wrong, I don’t believe that a 12 week old fetus has any reasonable expectation of surviving outside of the womb. A quick bit of research suggests that fetal survivability only reaches 50% in about twice that time. Therefore, logic would insist that a fetus is NOT a “baby,” but a group of cells within the womb which has the capability of BECOMING a baby. One would think that all of the lawyers who run for political office would be capable of making that distinction, but it’s apparently too hard for them. Given their, seeming, preferences, a “baby” exists from the moment of conception, so they, apparently, really want to have the law establish that, if that 2-cell construct does not (for any reason) become a fully developed human baby then someone, probably the purported “mother,” should be charged with criminal wrong-doing.
It is true that such a case would give these “good” Christian legislators the opportunity to use the death penalty they fought so hard for a few years ago. Of course, one COULD argue that the Commandment (from “the Book” which is part of the basis of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic belief) says: “Thou shalt not kill.” Note: it does NOT say, “… except as a punishment, or when authorized by Congress,” or words to that effect. I may just be stupid, of course, but I do not understand how killing (if that is the appropriate term, which I doubt) is wrong when dealing with an unviable fetus, but it’s okay for a living human, or when a bunch of politicians say that it’s okay ‘cause those to be killed aren’t “our kind” of people, because they are the wrong race, color, ethnicity, religion, political philosophy, or are just in our way.
So, to get back to Memorial Day. IF the idea is to set aside a special day to honor those who have died in the service of the nation, it would seem to me that one must FIRST consider what “service to the nation” means. Unfortunately, that requires one to actually give some thought to what the US is supposed to stand for. Do we wish our country to stand for, ”Liberty, Equality, and Justice for All,” as we often say? Or do we really want oligarchs and kings to establish rules which make them “real” citizens, as opposed to the rest of us slobs? Or, do we wish to try to actually live by the principles which we have SAID were the basis of our national idea since the idea of the United States was conceived? I’m getting too old to actually do more than to try to serve as a bit of a conscience for the public, but I have no desire to cease to do that. I became a teacher because I thought the best way to spend one’s life was to help advance the cause of truth and reason. I’d like to think that I had at least a bit of success along those lines, in spite of all too many forces in opposition.
And, of course, I probably shouldn’t get so worked up about Memorial Day. After all, there will be some parades, ceremonies, speeches by political figures, and other carryings-on, but such things don't seem to be of special importance to most people. If one looks around, for many people, Memorial Day is just another excuse to have a picnic or cookout, to take advantage of the many sales that all sorts of retailers have, or just enjoy a day off (for those who don’t have to work on this “holiday”). After all, the important thing about this day is that it’s the start of the summer, isn't it?
As Donald Trump is quoted as having said of our “honored dead,” at Arlington National Cemetery in 2017, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” Is THAT what the US is really all about? I hope not. I think we should remember our dead AND what they died for. That would truly indicate a desire to honor our fallen.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows