Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

(Note: I wrote this post on Memorial Day, but I think its message applies just as strongly to Veteran's Day, when we honor all those who have entered into service for our country.)

On a day we rightly consecrate in order to remember those who have given their last full measure of devotion in the service of this country, I think it's appropriate to think about what it really means to support our troops. Obviously, truly supporting our troops means more than hanging a flag on our house or sporting a bumper sticker on our car.

Today, the Washington Post has published an article about the sacrifice our soldiers have made in Iraq. This article details the very real & painful price we ask of our military forces when we send them into conflict. But it also veers close to making an argument that I find very dangerous.

The dangerous argument is this: because we have lost lives in our military ventures in Iraq, we are obliged to stay there "until we win" -- which I guess means until we are able to install a self-sustaining democratic government there. (Or does it mean we have to stay until we have enacted sufficient vengeance on those who were responsible for 9/11?) In other words, to leave Iraq is to dishonor those who have died there.

This is the kind of thinking that enmeshes us in long, costly counterinsurgencies that end up wasting even more lives.

The truth is this: those who have served & died in the service of their country have earned the same amount of honor, whether or not the outcome of that service is victory or defeat. This is why American casualties of Vietnam deserve the same honors as American casualties of World War II. The outcome of a mission is something for politicians to worry about. Honorable veterans just execute the missions we give them.

To elaborate further, the decisions & policies that determine where we send our military are made by civilian politicians, just as those same politicians, as our representatives, also decide when we should end such endeavors. To put it another way, the military is our gun, and we decide where to point it, when to pull the trigger -- and when to put it back in our holster.

Think of when President George W. Bush stood on that aircraft carrier in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner a little over 7 years ago. That was an example of a politician saying one thing and doing another. The President acted as if we were putting our gun back into our holster when in fact the opposite was true. It was dishonorable political posturing, but it did nothing to diminish the honor of our military. Those who go where we send them in the service of their country have honor, no matter what our politicians say or do.

I like the way Senator John McCain refers to "blood & treasure" when he talks about our use of our military because it highlights the price that such use entails (though I disagree with him on lots of other issues). McCain's phrase also highlights how precious our military really is. It represents the best parts of us, and it deserves to be used wisely.

The question is: is it wise to continue to commit our "blood & treasure" in Iraq or Afghanistan? I don't pretend to know the ultimate answer to that question, but I can't help noticing the mounting evidence of diminishing returns in our wars in the Middle East.

And don't even get me started about the supposed benefits of these wars in our "fight" against terrorism.

I also think that we don't do enough for our veterans. They deserve better benefits & compensation. But they also deserve to be better used. Just because we've incurred casualties in a given theater of operations does not mean we need to stay there until every potential enemy of America has been eradicated.

One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the civilian control of the military. It's one of our vaunted checks & balances of national power, and it has served us well. But with such power comes much responsibility. It is up to us to ensure that we only commit our "blood & treasure" in endeavors that are worth their price.

This issue is complicated when much of the information about our military activities is hidden from those of us who are supposed to be the ultimate authority on military action. I can't help but think of President Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he warned us about the "unwarranted influence" of the "military-industrial complex" in determining our national priorities and policies. He left office urging us to find the "proper meshing" of military might and peaceful methods, "so that security and liberty may prosper together."

We must remain vigilant and decisive about when & where we deploy our military, and we must be just as vigilant and decisive about when we bring them back home. This is what it truly means to support our troops.

As I write this, NBC News is airing a story on Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where we inter those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's both heartbreaking and inspirational to see those rows of markers. They deserve our eternal remembrance.

Please take the time to remember the fallen on Memorial Day. And from now on, pay close attention to where we send our future fallen. These honorable men and women deserve no less.

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