Tuesday, May 21, 2019

What we celebrate

Sen. Tom Cotton has written a memoir of his days doing play-party dress-up in the Old Guard at Arlington. (I own a farm in Arkansas and so have learned the local dialect.)

In interviews promoting his book he waved the bloody shirt more shamelessly than any politician that I can remember. He was unable to say "dead veterans," but could only call them "fallen heroes," a phrase he repeated obsessively.

So since no one else is going to say it this Memorial Day, let me state the obvious: Most of the men buried at Arlington did nothing more heroic than fold blankets at a supply depot, and most of them did not fall; they died from the diseases of old age.

I sympathize with the losses of men who were dragged away or induced to leave their homes for years, but not everything they did away from home was worth celebrating. Why are we celebrating the Marines who fought to suppress democracy in Central America, or the Zippo raiders who burned the homes of subsistence farmers in Vietnam, or the B-52 pilots who flew terror bombing missions against Cambodia?

Not everything the Americans have done with their military power is worth celebrating, although all of it is worth remembering. Glory is no substitute for morality.

I would also like to state the obvious about the Founders. Today's self-styled conservatives -- who are not really conservative -- cry the loudest about both Originalism and about serving their country, with the subtext that the only real way to serve is in the uniformed formations, but that was never the view on the Founding Fathers.

Those men who had just come through the most brutal war feared and distrusted armies and celebrated the life of the civilian. Men, as Jefferson said, who cultivated their own vines and fig trees.

The Founders loathed navies even more than armies. Jefferson was so fearful of navies that he withdrew America's warships and replaced them with 170 rowboats for coastal defense in order to prevent temptations into adventurism.

Among the things that worried the Founders was the rise of an hereditary officer caste, which in their experience would be a threat to democracy. The United States is come along way toward having that, too.

Even in 1789 the Founders' ideal of an unarmed nation isolated from the tumults of foreign disputes was ridiculous. It wasn't the Continentals who defeated the British at Yorktown, it was a French navy and a French army who did that.

Still, the Founders were right to be worried about military formations. American National Guardsmen proved just as willing to shoot down workers as the tsar's Cossacks were.

America as a whole  can take credit for fighting the fascists, although to state the obvious again, that large fraction of the population who did not want to fight the fascists were the political ancestors of the Tom Cottons of today.

I grew up celebtaing two Memotrial Days: the national one and Confederate Memorial Day.

Confederate Memorial Day is dying out at last, but maybe we should still have two memorial days: one for the poor soldiers who suffered; and another for the poor civilians who suffered from them.

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