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Memorial Day Reflections and Revisionism

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On Memorial Day, the media do their usual sacralizing of war. Instead, it should be a day for the ritualized scourging of politicians. During the last 60 years, their lies have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of almost 100,000 thousand American soldiers and millions of foreigners. And yet, people still get teary-eyed when politicians take the stage to talk about their devotion to the troops.

For Memorial Day 2011, the Washington Post included numerous touching photographs of graves, recent widows or fatherless kids by the graves, and stories of the troops’ sacrifices. The Post buried a short article in the middle of the A-Section (squeezed onto a nearly full-page ad for Mattress Discounters) about the U.S. military’s having killed dozens of Afghan civilians and police in a wayward bombing in some irrelevant Afghan province. The story’s length and placement reflected the usual tacit assumption that any foreigner killed by the U.S. military doesn’t, by definition, deserve to be treated as fully human.

The Washington Post celebrations of Memorial Day never include any reference to that paper’s culpability in helping the Bush administration deceive America into going to war against Iraq. When Post reporters dug up the facts that exposed the Bush administration’s false claims on the Iraqi peril, editors sometimes ignored or buried their revelations. Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks complained that in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “There was an attitude among editors: ‘Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?’”

The Post continued aiding the war party by minimizing its sordidness. When the Bush administration’s claims on Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program had collapsed, the Washington Post article on the brazen deceits was headlined, “Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence.” According to Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, the media are obliged to portray politicians as if they are honest. He commented in 2007, “From August 2002 until the war was launched in March of 2003 there were about 140 front-page pieces in the Washington Post making the administration’s case for war. It was, ‘The President said yesterday.’ ‘The Vice President said yesterday.’ ‘The Pentagon said yesterday.’ Well, that’s part of our job. Those people want to speak. We have to provide them a platform. I don’t have [sic] anything wrong with that.” Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung declared in 2004, “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.”

The Post was not alone in its groveling to war. Major television networks behaved like government-owned subsidiaries for much of the period before and during the Iraq War. CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan explained a month after the United States attacked Iraq, “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, ‘Here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war,’ and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.” Jessica Yellin, a CNN correspondent who formerly worked for MSNBC, commented in 2008, “When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings.” NBC news anchor Katie Couric stated that there was pressure from “the corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it.”

Before the war, almost all the broadcast news stories on Iraq originated with the federal government. PBS’s Bill Moyers noted that “of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department.”

But this record of servility and deceit has not slackened the media’s enthusiasm to drench Memorial Day with sanctimony.

How to observe Memorial Day

Memorial Day should be a time to remember the government’s crimes against the people. Politicians have perennially sent young Americans to die for false causes or on wild-goose chases.

Over the past century, war memorials have become increasingly popular. However, most of the memorials do little or nothing to inform people of the chicaneries or deceits that paved the way to or perpetuated the war. It would be a vast improvement if each war memorial also had an adjacent monument of major lies —such as an engraved plaque listing the major deceits by which the American public were swayed to support sending American boys off to die for some grand cause.

The Vietnam War memorial in Washington, for instance, lists the names of each American killed in that conflict. If that memorial could be complemented by excerpts from the Pentagon Papers — or from some of the major admissions of deceit by some of that war’s policymakers — the effect on the public would be far more uplifting.

Sheldon Richman, the editor of The Freeman and senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, proposes renaming Memorial Day Revisionist History Day. In a post on his personal blog on Memorial Day 2008, he declared,

The state inculcates an unquestioning faith in its war-making by associating it with patriotism, heroism, and the defense of “our freedoms.” This strategy builds in its own defense against any criticism of the government’s policies. Anyone who questions the morality of a war is automatically suspected of being unpatriotic, unappreciative of the bravery that has “kept us free,” and disrespectful of “our troops,” in a word, un-American.

But in fact the forces aren’t “serving their country” or “keeping us free.” They are doing the bidding of hack politicians, well-connected economic interests, and court intellectuals who are striving to satisfy personal ambition, attain wealth, or create historical legacies.

To counter this common outlook, in which people are indoctrinated from birth, we should do what we can to teach others that the government’s version of its wars is always self-serving and threatening to life, liberty, and decency.

General Patton said that an ounce of sweat can save a pint of blood. Similarly, a little reading and thinking this time of year can save a heap of gravedigging in the future. Richman recommended the following works as a start:

  • Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, by Paul Fussell.
  • Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.
  • The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, by William Appleman Williams.
  • The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition, by Arthur Ekirch.
  • The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic, 1890–1920, by Walter Karp.
  • The Costs of War, edited by John Denson. I would add to the list the following works:
  • The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, by Thomas Fleming.
  • The New Dealers’ War: F.D.R. and the War within World War II, by Thomas Fleming.
  • Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, by Daniel Ellsberg,
  • Liberty, Security, and the War on Terror, edited by Richard M. Ebeling and Jacob G. Hornberger
  • The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars, edited by Richard M. Ebeling and Jacob G. Hornberger.

Memorial Day can benefit from the creativity of free spirits across the board. Tom Blanton, the mastermind of the website Project for a New American Revolution, proposed in an exchange on my website (www.jimbovard. com) changing Memorial Day to make it far more realistic:

It used to be that Memorial Day was to honor dead soldiers. In recent years, we are asked to also honor veterans (who already have a day) and active duty members of the armed services. This may be an indication that the politicians feel there aren’t enough dead soldiers….

I think Memorial Day should simply be renamed Tombstone Day and people should decorate their yards with styrofoam tombstones like they do for Halloween. True-believers might even consider a few flag-draped coffins made of cardboard and maybe hanging dismembered arms and legs made of rubber from their trees.

Blanton’s proposal would provide a shot in the arm for party stores during the slow period between Valentine’s Day and Halloween. And it would be a spark for conversations that were far more substantive than the usual flag waving.

I would favor celebrating Memorial Day the way the British used to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. Fawkes was the leader of a conspiracy in 1604 to blow up the Parliament building in London. Until recently, the British celebrated the anniversary of that day by burning Guy Fawkes in effigy. (Government officials have recently banned such burnings on the grounds that something bad might happen because of the fires. The movie V for Vendetta probably made some bureaucrats nervous.)

It would be appropriate to celebrate Memorial Day by burning in effigy the politicians whose lies led to the deaths of so many Americans (and innocent foreigners). Those whose images deserve to be torched run the gamut from Lyndon Johnson to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton (Kosovo) to George W. Bush (Iraq, et cetera), to Barack Obama (Afghanistan, Libya, et cetera). The burnings could be accompanied by recitations of the major offenses against the truth and liberty that each politician committed.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.