Now that the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy during WWII has passed, I’d like to share a few thoughts during the ritual patriotic fervor surrounding the D-Day commemorations. This in partially in response to my own internal thoughts that churn whenever these types of “celebrations” take place. It is also in response to Howard Zinn’s critique of the notion that World War Two represented the “greatest generation” while perpetuating vile racist policies both within the racially-segregated military and in society at-large (consider the irony of us waging war against a regime that rounded up an ethnic group to put in camps “over there,” all while we rounded up an ethnic group to put in camps here at home).
Many Americans are predictably outraged by such talk. Yes, how dare World War Two veteran and history professor Howard Zinn point out the priorities of the generation being discussed. Or Kurt Vonnegut, with his subversive literature. Or General Smedley Butler before them. And so on. These were after all, courageous veterans who (according to some critics) lose their status as “heroes” the moment they begin to point out uncomfortable truths. I for one see a huge difference between honoring what people went through versus the society that produced the conditions they were forced to endure. This is the insidiousness of patriotic sloganeering. It is revealed as propagandistic fluff once you take a look at the facts.
The topic at hand is the Second World War and our society’s deification of this generation which “fought for freedom.” Or rather, fought for a society full of contradictions. The sacrifice of the millions of individuals notwithstanding (both soldier and civilian), the system they served was never great. At least not by the very standards we set for ourselves (that whole “liberty and justice” thing). If we care about the troops not becoming corpses, or disabled and dysfunctional veterans, maybe we ought to open our eyes and take a critical look at the social, political and economic system that produces them.
I don’t feel any of us are served by repeating comforting lies and patting ourselves on the back for our one-sided and unreflective attitudes. This ignores what prevents us from fully realizing the values we tell ourselves we stand for (such as “liberty and justice for all”) amidst Jim Crow, segregation in the military, Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, etc). It isn’t like millions of Americans bled on battlefields far from their loved ones, while there were wealthy American industrialists raking in massive profits from BOTH SIDES of the war (oh wait, that actually was the case).
As for all of our progress: let us examine how far we have come. Let’s give credit where it is due. It isn’t like today we take some of our heroic veterans and deport them out of the country they fought for (oops, we actually do). It isn’t like we round up legal asylum seekers fleeing from violence often rooted in US interventions, and take their children away and cage them as a “deterrent” (oops, except we do that too). It isnt like we are thanking our veterans by underfunding and understaffing the VA while handing over the VA budget to billionaire cronies who are privatizing veterans healthcare (oops, we do that too). It isn’t like there is a widespread increase in the already-high numbers of female service-members that are sexually assaulted by their compatriots during their time in service (again, oops, that is also true). It isn’t like we have political Ieaders actually cheering on psychopathic war criminals and threatening to pardon them if they face any legal consequences for their disgusting actions (again, voila! Such as USN Chief Gallagher who liked to kill unarmed people, and murder little girls and the elderly and was turned in by HIS OWN SEAL TEAM–which tells you all you need to know–while morons from the White House and Congress think it’s “no big deal”). I could go on.
So maybe instead of being aghast at uncomfortable truths, we face them. Maybe we do what we need to do to be better. After all, how has progress ever occured? By focusing on how “we aren’t as bad as we used to be?” No. Bear in mind that in the mid-20th century plenty of people were upset at the audacity of non-white people agitating for equal rights. According to nationwide polls in the 1960s, the vast majority of white people in America felt the civil rights movement at the time “went too far.”
Simply cheering on the status quo is not living up to the vaunted values of our Declaration or Constitution, nor does is it in line with the oaths we swore. I am tired of this phony brand of sunshine patriotism. It does not serve the interests of the troops. It displays ignorance and the most arrogant kind of pride. It is dark, dishonest, and toxic. And the only antidote to this toxicity is light and truth.
There are always those who want to cover their ears when the truth is told. Their conscience is inconvenienced and their sensibilities offended (I recall some of those same people using the word “snowflakes”). Let us ask ourselves: would there be progress if we all followed suit? You already know the answer. In fact, nothing has ever changed by following the status quo. As Zinn points out elsewhere, all the things we tell ourselves that we abhor, such as genocide and slavery were not aberrations. They were the system. They were the law.
No. I stand with the real heroes. The truth tellers: the Hugh Thompsons, the Howard Zinns, the Kurt Vonneguts, the Smedley Butlers, the Ron Kovics, the Stan Goffs, the Ann Wrights, the Rory Fannings, the Matthew Hohs, the Spenser Rapones of the world. Not those who bask in the comfort of ill-gotten gains while lauding their dedication to buzzwords like democracy, liberty and justice, but who do very little to demonstrate faith to these principles. If these are anything but meaningless words and slogans, then we must act in accordance with those values.
To some of us, being “great” means not burying our heads in the sand and believing in childish fairytales. It means facing what needs to be faced. And with the current political class of chickenhawks pumping out cheap slogans and keeping us in a state of Endless War, risking the lives of our current and future generations, it is a dereliction of our oath to NOT call it out.