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How Memorial Day Glosses Over the Real Horrors of War

It's likely that few Americans have spent time thinking about what the “memorial” in Memorial Day is about.

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Count on one thing: there will be no Afghan version of  Maya Lin, no Afghan Wall on the National Mall.  Unlike the Vietnam conflict, tens of thousands of books won’t be pouring out for decades to come arguing passionately about the conflict.  There may not even be a “who lost Afghanistan” debate in its aftermath.

Few Afghan veterans are likely to return from the war  to infuse with new energy an antiwar movement that  remains small indeed, nor will they worry about being “ spit upon.”  There will be little controversy.  They -- their traumas and their wounds -- will, like so many bureaucratic notices, disappear into the American ether, leaving behind only an emptiness and misery, here and in Afghanistan, as perhaps befits a bankrupting, never-ending imperial war on the global frontiers.

Whistling Past the Graveyard of Empires

If nothing else, the path to American amnesia is worth recalling on this Memorial Day. 

Though few here remember it that way, the invasion of Afghanistan was launched on a cult of the dead.  These were the dead civilians from the Twin Towers in New York City.  It was to their memory that the only “Wall” of this era -- the  9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan -- has been built.  Theirs are the biographies that are still remembered in  annual rites nationwide.  They are, and remain, the dead of the Afghan War, even though they died before it began.

On the other hand, from the moment the invasion of Afghanistan was launched, how to deal with the actual American war dead was always considered a problematic matter.  The Bush administration and the military high command, with the Vietnam War still etched in their collective memories, feared those uniformed bodies coming home (as they  feared and banishedthe “body count” of enemy dead in the field).  They remembered the return of the “body bags” of the Vietnam era as a kind of nightmare, stoking a fierce antiwar movement, which they were determined not to see repeated.

As a result, in the early years of the Afghan and then Iraq wars, the Bush administration took relatively draconian steps to cut the media off from any images of the returning war dead.  They  strictly enforced a Pentagon ban, in existence since the first Gulf War, on media coverage and images of the coffins arriving from the war fronts at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.  At the same time, much publicity was given to the way President Bush  met privately and emotionally -- theoretically beyond the view of the media -- with the families of the dead.

And yet, banned or not, for a period the war dead proliferated.  In those early years of Washington’s two increasingly catastrophic wars on the Eurasian mainland, newspapers regularly produced full-page or double-page “walls of heroes” with tiny images of the faces of the American dead, while their names were repeatedly  read in somber tones on television.  In a similar fashion, the antiwar movement toured the country with little “cemeteries” or displays of combat boots representing the war dead.

The Pentagon ban ended with the arrival of the Obama administration.  In October 2009, six months after the Pentagon rescinded it, in an obvious rebuke to his predecessor, President Obama traveled  to Dover Air Base.  There, inside a plane bringing the bodies of the dead home, he reportedly prayed over the coffins and was later photographed offering a salute as one of them was carried off the plane. But by the time the arrival of the dead could be covered, few seemed to care.

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