On Memorial Day it is good and right to remember those who served in our armed forces and sacrificed on behalf of our country. As I watch some of the non-stop war movies that parade across the television screens, I appreciate the sacrifices made, the horrors suffered, and the burdens borne. Of course, not everyone who served was “a hero”; some, over the course of our nation’s history, have committed horrible crimes in the name of our country or while in uniform.
I suggest that on Memorial Day, in addition to honoring those who served, we should turn ourselves to a wider reflection, to reflect on where we, as a nation, have been and where we might be headed. Our story is not without blemish, but if it is correct that “the truth shall set you free”, then we must face the good and the bad and the indifferent in our history. This is not always easy or pleasant. Some recent reading has brought all of this to mind. In the NYT yesterday, a review article by Adam Kirsch entitled “Is World War II Still the Good War?” The “good war”—an oxymoron if there ever was one—and yet not all wars are equal in their moral repugnance and some are justified. Kirsch rightly points out some of the moral failings of the Allied Powers, such as the fire-bombing of German (and Japanese) cities, which rightly raises the issue of war crimes. In the end, neither Kirsch nor I nor many of the authors of the books that he discusses, believe that one finds any equivalency between the evils of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Allied Powers. Even the question of allies raises moral clouds, such as Hitler’s one-time ally and then ours, Stalin, who perhaps can rival and arguably even excel Hitler in evil, yet we danced with him in order to defeat Hitler. These are not easy questions, and Kirsch addresses them forthrightly but not naively.
I also listened to a portion of Simon Schama’s The American Future: A History. This morning I listened to the story of the treatment of the Cherokee Nation by Andrew Jackson, Schama describes Jackson’s actions as a terrible low in American political morality. Congress (including Davey Crockett) almost defeated Jackson’s theft and ethnic cleansing (for this is what it was, and often treatment of American Indians became genocide). Yet, it happened. Yes, we must remember this, too. Not to beat ourselves up with useless guilt, but to understand how we got there and to consider our own actions and how they may compare to those of our ancestors, heroic, ordinary, and shameful.