Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism.
What does Memorial Day mean in an age of endless war?
The era of wars that began and concluded neatly, with declarations, speeches, rules, objectives, deciding battles and signed peace accords, ended before the oldest active duty soldier serving today was born.
The men and women who fight and die, leaving their families never knowing if they will return, and in what form, serve not in wars, but endless police actions, peacekeeping missions, terrorist pursuits and nation building exercises with names that sound like obscure action movies, New Dawn, Inherent Resolve, Freedom’s Sentinel, that will never have a final ending, only another generic name.
Obama ended the Iraq War twice. It’s still ongoing. And likely will for all of human history.
We didn’t begin the Iraq War. Arguably Mohammed and the Sassanids did. Over 1,300 years later, the Persians and the rulers of Mecca and Medina are still fighting over Bahrain. When we left, it went on without us. And the Sunnis and Shiites, Mecca, Medina and Tehran, will go on fighting no matter what.
Civilized nations fight wars. And the places where we fight are not civilized, though they may have flags, anthems and constitutions. They’re murderous tribal wastelands torn by perpetual hatreds and feuds.
The Islamic resurgence has placed us in a state of permanent war. We may debate over which fronts that war should be fought on, but only the left can deny that the conflict itself is inescapable. We may fight it in Iraq or in New York, in Syria or in Sweden, the front lines may shift, but the war won’t go away.
And yet, paradoxically, this form of fighting takes us back to the origins of our military.
The heritage of the US Army goes back to the provincial regiments that fought in colonial territorial disputes with the French and defended the colonies against Indian raids. The Marine Corps shone at Tripoli in the Barbary Wars. Like the battles that their spiritual successors are called upon to fight today, these were conflicts with tribal raiders, bandits and territorial conflicts with no clear conclusion.
If you think the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are endless, the Indian wars arguably went on for 300 years.
We define our history by the definitive wars against European nations with definitive victories. The great cataclysmic world wars convinced us that our conflicts would get bigger and more explosive.
Instead we have returned to civilizational warfare. We no longer fight nations, but tribes. The wars are low intensity, but never go away. The weapons are primitive, but the goal of the attackers is to destroy our morale by inflicting psychological trauma, terrorizing us with barbaric atrocities, to defeat us.
Our military is still adapting its techniques and technology to this old/new way of war. But as a society we must also adapt the way we honor our troops and respect their sacrifices. Memorial Day was born out of the reconciliations between North and South after the Civil War. But we cannot look either to wars won or reconciliations achieved. We must honor the soldiers of a war that may never end.
The volunteer army has isolated entire cultural swathes of the country not only from military service, but from its realities, its virtues and its sacrifices. Paradoxically this too takes us back in time to an era when the wealthy could pay others to take their place in a regiment. But military service was always part of American life. The sacrifices of service and the nature of duty were widely understood.
The polarizing anthem protests reveal once again a divide between the parts of the country that understand military service and those that don’t. It is impossible to sustain patriotic communities without service. Those communities that do not serve in the military will instead take service in various causes, from political activism to gangs, as a substitute for what military service offers young men.
The war we are in is no longer a temporary emergency. And the military has been badly damaged by both the strains of recruitment in the previous decade and the social experiments of this decade.
To truly honor the sacrifices of those who fell in battle, we must set service at the heart of our society.
We are once again fighting wars in which everyone is on the front line. Whether as a soldier flying over Syria or the commuter on a bus targeted by a terrorist, we are all under fire. As we debate the Second Amendment, the role of militias and an armed populace are becoming more relevant than ever. And we must adapt both the military and the civilian populations to a definition of war that is both new and old.
Every terrorist attack erodes the distinction between the front line and the home front. And yet our language and understanding have been slow to adapt. The soldiers wounded in the Fort Hood attack had to struggle for their recognition against a tide of bureaucracy and political correctness. Arming soldiers in recruitment centers, like those shot and killed in the Chattanooga attacks, was another uphill battle. The National Guard has been sent to the border, but their hands have been mostly tied.
When we segregate the home front from the front line, we not only fail to grasp the nature and scope of the war we are fighting, but we also segregate the men and women who serve from everyone else.
The central principle of the militia was that everyone was at risk and so everyone was obligated to serve.
Not everyone ought to serve in the military, but everyone ought to understand the responsibility of that service and have a role in defending their community in even the smallest possible way. Every passenger who boards a plane is informed of his or her responsibility in the event of trouble. But when he lands, he walks off the plane with little idea of what he can do in the event that his country is under attack.
After 9/11, Americans were told to go shopping. They’re still shopping, and being targeted in malls.
In an age of endless war, the best way to honor those who take on the responsibility of that great service is to share their burden. There are important charities that help veterans. And it is always a good thing to thank those who serve for their service. But as a society, we must do more than thank, we must rebuild a society in which protecting the country is not only the duty of the fourth son of a poor family, but the duty of every single American. And in which it is what qualifies you to be an American.
That society will not be born overnight. But it is a society whose existence is intimately tied to our national survival. And it is a society worth fighting for.
The colonies and colonists prevailed against impossible odds to build the greatest nation in the world through a shared sense of solidarity, duty and sacrifice. America cannot expect to prevail through a civilizational war that may last centuries by expecting only a few percent of its population to take on that solidarity, that duty and those sacrifices. If we go on that way, we will not survive. And the sacrifices of those who fell in defense of the nation throughout the centuries will have been made in vain.
This Memorial Day, let us not only remember the sacrifices of the dead, but their sense of duty.