War Lies and Memorial Day Truth

War is a lie.

David Swanson, one of my role models in peacemaking, wrote a book by this 4-word title in which he documents all the different kinds of lies that lead to wars and keep wars going. He debunks specific myths our culture uses to glorify war, such as the idea that the attack on Pearl Harbor was unprovoked (though it was still unjustified) or the belief that the atomic bombs were necessary to end World War II, as evidence for his broader thesis that wars are never noble, necessary, or just. Today, on Memorial Day, the four words lodge in my head against the patriotic drumbeats and fanfare that would drown them in a wave of militaristic glory. War. Is. A. Lie.

The idea that many human beings must die so that others can live is a lie. The belief that freedom is paid for in blood is a lie. Any time we measure our worth and our morality against others whom we march to slaughter for a greater good, we deceive ourselves. When we claim the salvation of others depends upon a sword, gun or bomb, we are deceived.

Violence is a lie. But it is a lie at the very foundation of human society. It is a lie on which cultures and nations are built. It is a lie that permeates the American consciousness and frames the stories that underwrite our collective identity. “We enjoy our freedom, prosperity, and success because of those who gave their lives for us.” It is drilled into our minds and pounded into our hearts from childhood.

And on Memorial Day, we summon all the glory, praise and reverence with which we have been taught to regard our military – the instrument of our freedom – in order to honor the fallen soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefields in service to our country. For pacifists like me, this is the most conflicting of all patriotic, militaristic holidays, because we share the desire to mourn and honor the dead. But we also must avoid conflating the true heroism of leaving the comfort of home to risk life and limb with the false righteousness of violence and the lie of justified war.

Today is a day I want to recognize with mourning and repentance, not fanfare and glory. The horror of violence and the sorrow of loss should be observed with solemn resolve to change our violent ways so that we can end this cycle of tragedy. The only way to honor those who lost their lives in war is to stop the cycle of lies that sacrifice human beings on the altar of militarism. The lie that we must kill and die so that others may live in freedom keeps the engines of death churning on. Memorial Day should be a day when we come together to stop that lie in its tracks. I want to honor all those who have died in war – soldier and civilian, ally and enemy, those who fell on the battlefield and those obliterated in their homes or hospitals or schools by falling bombs, those who died instantly and those who carried physical or psychological wounds for years before their bodies gave out or they were driven to suicide – by telling the truth.

To the civilians who have died by American-made weapons, sometimes by American hands and sometimes by those with whom the American government is willing to do business for profit: words cannot express my sorrow for the fear, pain, and devastation you experienced. Words cannot comfort your surviving family members, who may be displaced from their homes or refugees. Nevertheless, I am sorry. And I will do what I can to speak out so that drones no longer fill your skies and guns no longer flood your streets. I will advocate for policies that promote peace and decry those that disguise profit motives behind a veneer of humanitarianism. I will seek out and listen to voices of peace from your communities and amplify them.

To enemy soldiers killed in battle: Our government and our media will proclaim your deaths to be victories. But the faith that many members of our government and our media profess – the faith I also claim – instructs us to love you. You were made in the image of Love. If you died believing that God ordained for you to kill American soldiers, or even American civilians, you bought into the same lie that we tell ourselves when our soldiers march to kill you and dismiss the deaths of your families – defenseless children, women and men – as “collateral damage.” If you died because you took up arms to survive in a land torn apart by American weapons, then your death is a testimony to the failure, not success, of militarism. I will spend my life striving to spread the message that we cannot call your violence evil and our own heroism. Our hands are as red with the blood of children of God as yours (the term “innocent” is meaningless, as we are all created for life and love and all of our cultures contribute to the violence that saturates our world.)

To the fallen American soldiers: Today, our nation will celebrate you, but in that celebration, most of us will be reluctant to criticize the wars that took your life. You may have been drafted into a war and coerced to fight for freedom that you yourself did not have when threatened with prison if you failed to enlist. You may have been compelled into service through the poverty draft that claims so many as money that could go to community development is instead poured into the military, leaving financially-insecure young people with few options but to enlist. Or, you may have voluntarily joined, believing that your service would protect your loved ones at home and liberate innocent people abroad. However you came to take up arms, you were raised in a culture that told you that American soldiers are a force for good in the world. Then you were sent to a war in which you certainly saw and perhaps participated in the dehumanization of others. Your body was strained under grueling physical conditions, and (along with us at home) your mind was taught to regard some as the enemy. Meanwhile, wars rage on. Nations we made peace with decades ago, like Germany, still retain unexploded American bombs. Other nations, like Libya, are ruins of broken land and displaced people. Still others, like Iraq and Afghanistan, remain trapped in cycles of never-ending war that we started or exacerbated. Our culture lied to you. Our culture used you as a weapon. Our culture sacrificed you. But you were not made for sacrifice. You were made for life and love and compassion and relationship with family and friends and colleagues. Your family and friends will remember you for your love in whatever unique form you showed it. I, who did not know you for the human being you were beneath the uniform and flag-draped coffin, will honor you by striving to make sure no one else is ever sacrificed for the lie of war.

To all of us: There is no “them.” We are one humanity, created in the image of Love. We tell ourselves that our enemies are inhuman, but what is truly inhuman is the violence in which we and our “enemies” are caught up. That violence has taken and continues to take too many lives.

The truth is that freedom is not won at the cost of death to our enemies. On the contrary, war creates vicious cycles of enmity that puts us all in danger and renders us and our enemies twin agents of death. Nearly two decades of war in the Middle East have exacerbated insecurity and enmity. And as money pours into the war machine, we lose our freedom as education, healthcare, housing, the environment, and arts and sciences suffer.

The truth that we need to remember on Memorial Day is that everyone killed in war, whether soldier or enemy or civilian, is a member of one human family, made in the image of Love, and we must repent of our violence and come together in compassion and cooperation. This is the truth that will set us free.

Image: “Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery” via Wikimedia Commons. Photo taken by Kathleen T. Rhem. Public Domain.

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