It’s Memorial Day weekend and time for me to write my annual column on Harlan Miller. Regular readers will recall that Harlan was a WWII veteran who was badly wounded early in the war, spent several years in the hospital, and lived out his very long life as an impoverished recluse here in our valley.
Memorial day, as we all know, is not a day for honoring veterans, but a day for remembering those who were killed in war even as we pray for an end to war between nations and peoples. It is a day not to romanticize war, but to shed tears for its tragic inhumanity. War may sometimes be necessary, but it is never good, and most wars are far from necessary.
Harlan, like many others, did not die on the battlefield, but war killed him just the same. It robbed him of his ability to hold a decent job, stripped him of the ability to enjoy the fullness of intimate friendship, and trapped him in a purgatory of existence between youth and his fervent hope for a new life in God’s presence that would have to wait an earthly lifetime. He died alone and poor, and today I will put a flag and some roses on his grave.
Now and then I see newspaper ads, billboards, and Internet postings calling vets like Harlan heroes. I think that’s a disservice to them. They are not heroes, at least not in the popular sense of what heroism is. They are men and women who simply did what they were called to do, they did their duty, whether drafted or volunteered, as members of our armed forces. They did not give their lives for us. They did what they could to not lose their lives, but they were taken from them just the same, and often for reasons that history has not looked upon kindly. They deserve both honor and thanks, but to call them heroes puts and unscalable wall between us and their humanity.
Moreover, we do not owe our freedom to them. Armed forces are coercive instruments of conquest and control; history seldom grants them first place in the pursuit of freedom for the ordinary citizens of a nation. More often they become the agents of suppression and oppression. With few exceptions, that has not happened in America. Freedom, the freedom we cherish as Americans, is the product of, and ultimately protected by, courageous political inquiry and debate in the public arena. The Revolutionary War gave us independence from England, but the constitutional convention gave us our initial freedoms. WWII stopped the dictatorial conquest of a large part of the world, but the voting and civil rights acts gave minorities full access to the freedoms others had enjoyed for decades. Armies did not march with women demanding the right to vote. Armies did not have the back of King’s nonviolent civil disobedience to end segregation. Most of our wars have had nothing to do with defending our freedoms, and everything to do with establishing American power and authority over other peoples, if not for the cause of Western democracy, at least to stop movements violently opposed to it.
Some may have been necessary for a variety of “realpolitik” reasons, but they were sold to the public as protecting our freedom because the public would not have tolerated sending their sons and daughters to be killed in the cause of “realpolitik.” Nevertheless, they were sent. Those who died in battle, and those who are yet to be buried, deserve not adulation as heroes but honor as ones who did their duty as their country sent them to do it. We can honor them best not by romanticizing their deaths, but by working for the cessation of war.