Since the first cave dweller raised a sharpened stick against another, humans have resorted to violence to solve problems. And since that time, there’s been no shortage of critics who disapprove – especially when the consequence of that violence results in the death of our loved ones. Sometimes the critics of violence are popularly proved right, even when it’s at the hands of Americans and against our enemy: My Lai, Abu Ghraib. Sometimes they are popularly proved wrong: American Revolution, WWI, WWII. But most often we approve when the dead are theirs, and disapprove when the dead are ours.
Sometimes the justification for violence remains in question long afterwards, or sometimes its purpose is lost just as memory is lost over generations. Just this last week, President Obama visited Hiroshima, site of our first atomic bomb attack 71 years ago. Much handwringing occurred over the trip. Should Obama apologize? Or should Japan have apologized first for starting the war, for Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and POW camp conditions that made the Nazi’s look like Club Med in comparison? What I found interesting is our collective forgetfulness of Truman’s reasons for dropping the bomb. Could as many as 1 Million US service members have died in an invasion of mainland Japan, and far more Japanese? (the United States lost less than half that throughout all theaters in WWII, and the total of all military deaths in the history of our nation is over 1.3 Million). Was the 1 Million number exaggerated in order to justify the use of atomic force against Japan? Based on the best military metrics available at the time (Germany invading Russia, and allied incursions into Germany), it was not.
I find it interesting that our view of violence through the rear view mirror of history is most typically justified by the “might makes right” rule. (i.e. did we win the war?) But I doubt the families of the 58,000 boys we lost in Vietnam think that, and in the seven generations since the American Revolution (in which everyone imagines they’d have been on the side of George Washington) we have slowly forgotten that 1/3 of those descended from American colonists had ancestors who were crown loyalists. Another 1/3 were neutral. 2/3 of our WASPy ancestors either actively opposed independence, or watched from the bleachers, yet all their children and grandchildren learned about the heroics of our Founding Fathers. The price of our independence was the death of 25,000 continental soldiers (higher civilian deaths), and a clear signal to British generals that we were willing to accept many more.
When we were prepping for marksmanship training on Sand Hill at Ft. Benning, my drill sergeant told us, “Each one of you enlisted ready to die for your country, but your job here is to make that other poor sucker die for his.” Many of my brothers in arms have heard similar advice. Some of them we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think about these young people, and about the youth of all those previous generations who made the ultimate sacrifice for the America we have today. For my part, in order to do right by them, I’ll do more than fly the flag today in their honor, I’ll keep working to build an America that is worthy of their sacrifice.
John Lesch, Memorial Day 2016