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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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The Bush administration, it turns out, needn’t have worried.  In an America largely  detached from war, the Iraq War would end without fanfare or anyone here visibly giving much of a damn.  Similarly, the Afghan War would continue to limp from one disaster to the next, from an American  “kill team” murdering Afghan civilians “for sport” to troops  urinating on Afghan corpses (and videotaping the event), or  mugging for the camera with enemy body parts, or an American sergeant  running amok, or the  burning of Korans, or the raising of an  SS banner.  And, of course, ever more regularly, ever more unnervingly, Afghan “allies”  would turn their guns on American and NATO troops and blow them away.  It's a phenomenon almost unheard of in such wars, but so  common in Afghanistan these days that it's gotten its own label: “green-on-blue violence.”

This has been the road to oblivion and it’s paved with forgotten bodies.  Forgetfulness, of course, comes at a price, which includes the escalating  long-term costs of paying for the American war-wounded and war-traumatized.  On this Memorial Day, there will undoubtedly be much cant in the form of tributes to “our heroes” and then, Tuesday morning, when the mangled cars have been towed away, the barbeque grills cleaned, and the “heroes” set aside, the forgetting will continue.  If the Obama administration has its way and American special operations forces, trainers, and advisors in reduced but still significant numbers  remain in Afghanistan until perhaps  2024, we have more than another decade of forgetting ahead of us in a tragedy that will, by then, be beyond all comprehension.

Afghanistan has often enough been  called “the graveyard of empires.”  Americans have made it a habit to whistle past that graveyard, looking the other way -- a form of obliviousness much aided by the fact that the American war dead conveniently come from the less well known or forgotten places in our country.  They are so much easier to ignore thanks to that.

Except in their hometowns, how easy the war dead are to forget in an era when  corporations go to war but Americans largely don’t.  So far,  1,980 American military personnel (and significant but  largely unacknowledged numbers of private contractors) have died in Afghanistan, as have 1,028 NATO and allied troops, and (despite  U.N. efforts to count them) unknown but staggering numbers of Afghans. 

So far in the month of May, 22 American dead have been listed in those Pentagon announcements.  If you want a little memorial to a war that shouldn’t be, check out their hometowns and you'll experience a kind of modern graveyard poetry.  Consider it an elegy to the dead of second- or third-tier cities, suburbs, and small towns whose names are resonant exactly because they are part of your country, but seldom or never heard by you.

Here, then, on this Memorial Day, are not the names of the May dead, but of their hometowns, announcement by announcement, placed at the graveside of a war that we can’t bear to remember and that simply won’t go away.  If it’s the undead of wars, the deaths from it remain a quiet crime against American humanity:

Spencerport, New York

Wichita, Kansas

Warren, Arkansas

West Chester, Ohio

Alameda, California

Charlotte, North Carolina

Stow, Ohio

Clarksville, Tennessee

Chico, California

Jeffersonville, Kentucky

Yuma, Arizona

Normangee, Texas

Round Rock, Texas

Rolla, Missouri

Lucerne Valley, California

Las Cruses, New Mexico

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