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“A Call To Political Responsibility”: The Roots And Lessons Of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a peculiarly appropriate holiday for our times. Its origins lie in the Civil War, which resulted from the failure of a deeply polarized political system to settle the question of slavery.

Reading the history of the period leading up to the war is jarring because its political conflicts bear eerie similarities to our own — for the sharp regional differences over how the federal government’s powers should be regarded; for the way in which advocates of slavery relied on “constitutional” claims to justify its survival and spread; for the refusal of pro-slavery forces to accept the outcome of the 1860 election; and for the fierce disagreements over how the very words “morality,” “patriotism” and “freedom” should be defined.

Our nation argued over what the Founders really intended and over the Supreme Court’s authority to impose a particular political view — in the case of the Dred Scott decision, it was the pro-slavery view — and to override growing popular opposition to slavery’s expansion. Religious people sundered their ties with each other over the political implications of faith and biblical teachings. And, yes, we struggled over race and racism.

We are not on the verge of a new civil war, and no single issue in our moment matches slavery either in its morally evocative power or as a dividing line splitting the nation into two distinct social systems. But Memorial Day might encourage us to re-engage with the story of the pre-Civil War period (the late David M. Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the era, “The Impending Crisis,” has helpfully been reissued) for clues from the past as to how we might understand the present.

The holiday itself and how it was transformed over the years also carry political lessons for us now.

Memorial Day, as veterans are always the first to remind us, is not the same as Veterans Day. Memorial Day honors the war dead; Veterans Day honors all vets. Memorial Day started as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic, the vast and politically influential organization of Union veterans. The idea was to decorate the graves of the Union dead with flowers. Students of the holiday believe that Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the GAR (and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1884), eventually set May 30 as its date because that would be when flowers were in bloom across the country.

The South, of course, saluted the Confederate war dead. A group of women in Columbus, Miss., for example, decorated the graves of the Southern dead at the Battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866. This and other comparable ceremonies led to a vigorous competition over where the holiday originated.

It was only after World War I that Memorial Day was established as a holiday commemorating the fallen in all American wars. And it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, although that has not stopped the disputes over where it began.

Seen one way, the Memorial Day story traces a heartening journey: a nation whose Civil War took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans (more than 2 percent of the U.S. population then) could and did gradually come back together. A holiday that was initially a remembrance of those who died because the nation was so riven is now a unifying anniversary whose origins are largely forgotten.

Marking Memorial Day, moreover, may now be more of a moral imperative than it ever was. As a nation, we rely entirely on a military made up of volunteers. We are calling on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens to risk and give their lives on behalf of us all. We should recognize how much we have asked of so few, particularly in the years since 2001.

But it would be a mistake to ignore the roots of Memorial Day in our Civil War. Memorial Day is a call to political responsibility, even more so in some ways than the Fourth of July. The graves that Logan asked his contemporaries to decorate were a reminder that politics can have dire consequences. Distorting political reality (the pro-secession forces, for example, wrongly insisting that the resolutely moderate Abraham Lincoln was a radical) makes resolving differences impossible. As we honor our war dead, let us pause to consider how we are discharging our obligations to their legacy.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 25, 2016

May 30, 2016 Posted by | Civil War, Decoration Day, Memorial Day | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Politics Of War”: We Endanger The Peace And Confuse All Issues When We Obscure The Truth

This Memorial Day the nation remembers all those people who died while serving in the American armed forces. More than 1,316,000 military personnel have died during military conflicts in this nation’s history.

The mission of the U.S. military is to fight and win our nation’s wars. The U.S. has the most powerful military in the history of the world, but it should not be utilized as a political tool, or for retribution. The government and its leaders must do their best to make the right decisions, to be truthful with the American people, and to provide all the necessary support needed to fulfill the military’s mission. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.

Following the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush began to plan a response. Vice President Dick Cheney and neo-con members of the administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, immediately set their sites on Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s tyrannical ruler. They were disappointed that Hussein had not been toppled during the first Gulf War in 1991. Soon the administration made the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that Hussein was linked to the terrorist group al-Qaeda.

But the Bush administration was cherry picking raw intelligence, much of which was unverified. The “evidence” against Hussein was presented to Congress, which on October 11, 2002, passed the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces Against Iraq. In early 2003, the British and Spanish governments proposed a U.N. resolution that gave Iraq a deadline for compliance with previous resolutions on WMDs or face military actions. The resolution was withdrawn because France, Germany, Canada and Russia were opposed to military action; instead they called for further diplomacy. In early March, Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector Hans Blix said that progress had been made with the inspections and no WMD’s had been found in Iraq.

The administration, which rejected Blix’s assessment, began making the case for war to the American people. In February, President Bush conducted a series of interviews with news organizations, including the Spanish language channel Telemundo. I was the head of news for Telemundo at that time, and I was present for our session. The president told Telemundo’s Pedro Sevcec that he had not made a decision to go to war. Following the interview, I asked the president, “What about Jacques Chirac,” referring to the French president. President Bush swatted me on the shoulder with the back of his hand and said dismissively, “Oh, he’ll come around.” “We’re going to war,” I thought.

The American invasion of Iraq began on March 20. Vice President Cheney had predicted we would be greeted as liberators. He was wrong. The Iraqi forces were quickly defeated but the administration mismanaged the occupation. The Ba’athist government had collapsed, Hussein’s military was disarmed, and a power vacuum ensued. Sectarian violence broke out between the Shias and the Sunnis. U.S. backed Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, became Prime Minister in 2006, but his government alienated the country’s Sunni minority.

In 2007, President Bush implemented a troop surge in Iraq. By adding 20,000 additional U.S. troops, primarily in capital city Baghdad, the president hoped to buy time for reconciliation among the factions. The situation on the ground stabilized, but Sunnis still distrusted the Maliki government.

In 2008, the Bush administration negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq granting U.S. troops in the country legal immunities with the understanding the troops would be withdrawn by 2012. When negotiations began to extend U.S. military presence, only a smaller number, Maliki and various Iraqi party leaders agreed to the extended troop deployment, but did not want to continue the legal immunities. These immunities are a condition everywhere U.S. troops are based.

Some critics said President Barack Obama could have done more to secure the legal immunities, but that is debatable. In an interview on CBS News’ Face the Nation Sunday, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) once again claimed an agreement could have been reached with Maliki through negotiations. Nonetheless, President Obama withdrew American combat troops and fulfilled a campaign promise.

The Maliki government collapsed in 2014. In the summer of 2014, ISIS, an Islamic terrorist group that had been incubating for more than a decade in Syria, launched a military offensive in Northern Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate. ISIS, which is Sunni, has slaughtered thousands of people in its expansion in the region. But many Iraqi Sunnis find ISIS preferable to the Shiite government in Baghdad.

Iraq under Hussein had served as a counter balance against Iran, its bitter enemy. With Hussein gone, Iran, a Shiite country, began working closely with the Shiite government in Baghdad. Iran’s influence in the region has grown, especially with the spread of ISIS. Iraq is in turmoil and it is unlikely all of the factions, including the Kurds in the north, will come together again.

The Iraq War has been costly. More than 4,500 members of the U.S military have been killed since the invasion. Hundreds of thousands of casualties have been suffered by Iraqis. Two years ago the “Costs of Wars” project, part of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, estimated that the Iraq War had already cost America more than $2 trillion. And many veterans of Iraq, who have returned home, are unemployed, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or have committed suicide.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and many Republican presidential candidates blame President Obama for today’s chaos in Iraq and the region. Yet these candidates do not offer a plan or a solution. In fact, former Senator Rick Santorum recently said, “If these folks (ISIS) want to return to a 7th-century version of Islam, then let’s load up our bombers and bomb them back to the 7th century.” ISIS and Iraq have turned into political fodder for the Republican base.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequent mismanagement by the Bush administration, is the biggest mistake the U.S. has made since Vietnam. It has led to a series of unintended and disastrous consequences. And there is no light at the end of this tunnel for America.

Perhaps the architects of the Iraq War should have heeded the counsel of their spiritual leader, President Ronald Reagan. In a 1985 Veterans Day speech he said, “We endanger the peace and confuse all issues when we obscure the truth.”

 

By: Joe Peyronnin, Hofstra Journalism Professor; The Blog, The Huffington Post, May 24, 2015

May 25, 2015 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, Iraq War, Memorial Day, U. S. Military | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Moment Of Respect”: Make Time For Memorial Day’s True Purpose

I have no idea where I will be at 3 p.m. Monday, when a national moment of remembrance takes place, but Memorial Day will be very much on my mind.

Monday is the day to pause and give a moment of respect to those who, regardless of race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation, served, fought and died in behalf of our nation.

Hopefully, time to remember can be found in the din of holiday sales pitches.

“Memorial Day returns May 25. Until then, check back daily for more ways to save,” says the Wal-Mart Web site. “7 Memorial Day Sales You Won’t Want to Miss,” reads a headline in U.S. News & World Report’s Money section. “Chevy Memorial Day Sale, 15% off cash back.” “Memorial Day Sales 2015 — Coupons.com.”

And then there are all those cookouts and barbecues. Will there be any time to pay tribute?

Let’s hope so. Because as we bustle about in hot pursuit of those sales and bargains, and as we gather all that food to cook for the family gathering, it’s worth remembering that American men and women are embroiled in wars fought far from our shores. Their lives could be claimed. They could end up in the graves that get decorated next May with flowers and flags. Next year’s prayers could be recited for them. Parades could take place in their honor.

Next summer’s beginning could be marked with their remembrance.

I’m part of a long line of men in my family to have served in the U.S. military. My great-grandfather, Isaiah King of New Bedford, Mass., was with Company D of the 5th Massachusetts (Colored) Cavalry during the Civil War. My uncles, Marshall Colbert and Robert Colbert, were soldiers in World War I and World War II, respectively. My younger brother, Cranston, was an Air Force captain. And I was an active-duty Army officer from 1961 to 1963. My relatives and I aren’t among the countless number of men and women who died in service to their country. But we all proudly wore the uniform, even though the home front wasn’t always very kind.

My great-grandfather enlisted as a Union soldier at the age of 16 to defend against the great rebellion of the South, and he participated in the Siege of Petersburg, which resulted in 2,974 Union and 4,700 Confederate casualties.

He and his fellow black soldiers were paid less than white troops until, after months of protest, they finally got what they were owed. Getting a pension following his release from service was even more difficult.

His physical hardships and the struggle for his retirement benefit are documented in the book “New Bedford’s Civil War” by Earl F. Mulderink III. It took Great-granddaddy King 13 years, but he finally got his pension, which was $75 a month at the time of his death in 1933.

My uncles returned home from military service to a Washington, D.C., that was separate and unequal in nearly every respect. And the bars on my shoulders in the early ’60s weren’t enough to get me seated and served in southern public accommodations.

We were among the thousands of men of color who responded to the call to arms from a nation that demanded loyalty and discipline from us while often forgetting to reciprocate.

But we served. As did many of my Howard University ROTC classmates, some of whom gave their “last full measure of devotion” in Vietnam.

Do you know the formal declaration made by the men and women sworn to defend America? It’s worth remembering and repeating on Memorial Day. This is the Soldier’s Oath of Enlistment:

“I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

We who served will always remember that oath. In return, not just on Monday, but every day, the nation must remember what it owes to its defenders — all of them.

 

By: Colbert I. King, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist, The Washington Post, May 22, 2015

May 25, 2015 Posted by | Memorial Day, U. S. Military, War | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Honor Our Armed Forces By Avoiding Unnecessary Wars”: Our Kids Should Not Be Used To Bend The World To Our Political Will

With recent military victories by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, President Barack Obama’s critics are once again ratcheting up their rhetoric, blaming him for the spreading violence in the Middle East. Beginning his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) chimed in:

“If you fought in Iraq, it worked. It’s not your fault it’s going to hell. It’s Obama’s fault,” he said.

That’s been more or less the tack taken by all the declared and potential candidates in the Republican presidential field: Pretend that George W. Bush’s invasion had nothing to do with the disastrous escalation of war and terror from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. Blame it all on Obama. Play to a public nervous about the gruesome videos of Islamic State jihadists beheading their captives.

But here’s the one thing that you’re unlikely to hear from those armchair hawks: a plan to put large numbers of U.S. forces on the ground. The graves that are being spruced up for Memorial Day are too fresh, the memories of our Iraqi misadventure too raw.

Then again, GOP politicians still want to pummel the president for allegedly pulling troops out of Iraq too soon. Speaking to a crowd in New Hampshire recently — and trying to recover from a dumb defense of his brother’s invasion — Jeb Bush accused Obama of following public opinion rather than sound military advice.

“That’s what the president did when he abandoned, when he left Iraq. And I think it was wrong,” he said.

That’s a glib answer from a man whose children don’t serve under fire, whose friends and fat-cat donors keep their kids far away from the duties and demands of the U.S. armed forces. And that’s true for the vast majority of the GOP field. Graham was a military lawyer who never saw combat, but at least he served. Most of them did not.

Indeed, the drumbeat for war depends on the service of a relatively small percentage of Americans. Fewer than 1 percent of our citizens currently serve in the armed forces, and they are disproportionately drawn from working-class and lower-middle-class households.

As a rule, members of the 1 percent don’t go. (None of Mitt Romney’s five sons ever served.) For that matter, neither do the members of the top 10 percent.

And it’s especially irksome that those armchair hawks refuse to acknowledge that George W. Bush’s decision to depose Saddam Hussein set up the conditions for the current chaos in the Middle East. (Young Ivy Ziedrich, a college student, was right when she confronted Jeb Bush at a Reno, Nevada, event: “Your brother created ISIS,” she said.)

The Islamic State jihadists are largely Sunni; while they claim many grievances, they are chiefly waging war against their fellow Muslims who are Shi’a. Saddam was a Sunni who cruelly repressed Shiites and granted special favors to Sunnis, but his iron-fisted rule kept the peace.

Had the invasion of Iraq depended on a military draft, it’s unlikely Bush would have attempted it. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. Senate would have given him the authority to go in. The news media, which were largely quiescent in the face of Bush’s warmongering, would probably have asked more questions.

After all, it was clear even then that members of the Bush administration — especially Dick Cheney, who received deferments to avoid service in Vietnam — were exaggerating or distorting intelligence claiming ties between al Qaeda and Saddam. And while most Republicans now claim that faulty intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was to blame for the invasion, the fact is that should not have mattered. Even if Saddam had WMDs, they were no threat to us. A few months before 9/11, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had said as much.

If we’ve learned anything (and it’s not clear that we have), it should be this: As brave and capable as they are, the men and women of the U.S. armed forces cannot calm every conflict, destroy every dictatorship or bend the world to our will. The best way to honor their service is to refrain from sending them recklessly to war.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, May 23, 2015

May 23, 2015 Posted by | Iraq War, Memorial Day, Middle East | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Roots And Lessons Of Memorial Day”: A Reminder That Politics Can Have Dire Consequences

Memorial Day is a peculiarly appropriate holiday for our times. Its origins lie in the Civil War, which resulted from the failure of a deeply polarized political system to settle the question of slavery.

Reading the history of the period leading up to the war is jarring because its political conflicts bear eerie similarities to our own — for the sharp regional differences over how the federal government’s powers should be regarded; for the way in which advocates of slavery relied on “constitutional” claims to justify its survival and spread; for the refusal of pro-slavery forces to accept the outcome of the 1860 election; and for the fierce disagreements over how the very words “morality,” “patriotism” and “freedom” should be defined.

Our nation argued over what the Founders really intended and over the Supreme Court’s authority to impose a particular political view — in the case of the Dred Scott decision, it was the pro-slavery view — and to override growing popular opposition to slavery’s expansion. Religious people sundered their ties with each other over the political implications of faith and biblical teachings. And, yes, we struggled over race and racism.

We are not on the verge of a new civil war, and no single issue in our moment matches slavery either in its morally evocative power or as a dividing line splitting the nation into two distinct social systems. But Memorial Day might encourage us to re-engage with the story of the pre-Civil War period (the late David M. Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the era, “The Impending Crisis,” has helpfully been reissued) for clues from the past as to how we might understand the present.

The holiday itself and how it was transformed over the years also carry political lessons for us now.

Memorial Day, as veterans are always the first to remind us, is not the same as Veterans Day. Memorial Day honors the war dead; Veterans Day honors all vets. Memorial Day started as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic, the vast and politically influential organization of Union veterans. The idea was to decorate the graves of the Union dead with flowers. Students of the holiday believe that Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the GAR (and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1884), eventually set May 30 as its date because that would be when flowers were in bloom across the country.

The South, of course, saluted the Confederate war dead. A group of women in Columbus, Miss., for example, decorated the graves of the Southern dead at the Battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866. This and other comparable ceremonies led to a vigorous competition over where the holiday originated.

It was only after World War I that Memorial Day was established as a holiday commemorating the fallen in all American wars. And it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, although that has not stopped the disputes over where it began.

Seen one way, the Memorial Day story traces a heartening journey: a nation whose Civil War took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans (more than 2 percent of the U.S. population then) could and did gradually come back together. A holiday that was initially a remembrance of those who died because the nation was so riven is now a unifying anniversary whose origins are largely forgotten.

Marking Memorial Day, moreover, may now be more of a moral imperative than it ever was. As a nation, we rely entirely on a military made up of volunteers. We are calling on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens to risk and give their lives on behalf of us all. We should recognize how much we have asked of so few, particularly in the years since 2001.

But it would be a mistake to ignore the roots of Memorial Day in our Civil War. Memorial Day is a call to political responsibility, even more so in some ways than the Fourth of July. The graves that Logan asked his contemporaries to decorate were a reminder that politics can have dire consequences. Distorting political reality (the pro-secession forces, for example, wrongly insisting that the resolutely moderate Abraham Lincoln was a radical) makes resolving differences impossible. As we honor our war dead, let us pause to consider how we are discharging our obligations to their legacy.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 25, 2014

May 26, 2014 Posted by | Civil War, Memorial Day | , , , , | Leave a comment

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