With Malice Towards None

For most of my life I, like many Americans, was somewhat hazy on the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  The best I could come up with was "Memorial Day is for the dead veterans, and Veterans Day is for the live ones."  It was never clear to me whether veterans who survived war but died as civilians qualified for Memorial Day.  Most Americans honor all veterans (and, later, policemen, fireman, and similarly para-military civil servants) on both days, and everyone is satisfied.

Nevertheless, I’ve always held Memorial Day in somewhat lower esteem.  It lets itself be displaced to accommodate the first long weekend of the summer.  It is more readily associated with race cars than with remembrance.  It conspires with Flag Day (a truly idolatrous holiday) to incite stores to display forests of Old Glory for eight weeks prior to Independence Day.  Veterans Day, on the other hand, remains steadfastly on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, is stoically observed in reliably inclement weather, and resists all merchandising strategies.

Veterans Day has its origins, of course, in the end of the First World War, as a poignant post-Victorian gesture of resolve that the worst of the Twentieth Century should have been behind us.  Its nigh-ubiquitous observance in Western nations dampens the embers of nationalistic resentment that are otherwise endemic to war memorials.  As with many other internationalist attachments, the United States was slow to embrace Armistice Day (as November 11th was first called and still remains in Europe), but when we did, we meant it.

It is telling of my relative disregard that only recently did it occur to me to inquire into the origins of Memorial Day.  In so doing, I answered another question I hadn’t realized I had: which holiday is most suited to commemoration of the American Civil War?  When I was a lad in Tucson in the 1970s, every Independence Day the local historical recreation society put on a mock Civil War battle at a nearby park (Arizonans cannot decide whether they look up more to Texas or to Florida, which is reflected in the fact that the Confederacy won approximately two-thirds of the battles).  Despite its proximity to the anniversary of Gettysburg, however, Independence Day is too laced with (multiple flavors of) irony to decorously commemorate the Civil War.

Unlike some other nations, the United States does its best to bury unpleasant chapters of history.  While we may remember and note the dates and events, we do not observe Antietam Day, Vicksburg Day, or Gettysburg Day.  We do not even really celebrate Emancipation Day or Appomattox Day; the former reminds us of promises broken, while the latter constitutes the kind of triumphalism that America, at its best, abjures.

On 05 May 1866, the citizens of Waterloo, New York, closed their shops and decorated the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers in the town cemetery with flowers and wreaths, calling it Decoration Day.  Two years later at Arlington National Cemetery, Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan proclaimed 30 May to be Memorial Day.  Emphasizing reconciliation, the ceremony honored fallen soldiers from both the Federal and Confederate armies while affirming all of them to be victims of a national tragedy, that nation being the restored Union.

Sadly, many communities in the South continue to observe (on various dates) Confederate Memorial Day.  I consider this practice, like flying the Confederate Battle Flag, to be completely within their rights while nonetheless utterly disgraceful and disrespectful.  Just as I would argue against flying the Stars & Bars over government buildings, I contend that segregating Confederate war dead from the rest of American memorial services obscures the resolution that all Americans should take from any commemoration of the Civil War: that our common humanity and mutual liberty are the noblest causes for which our countrymen may give their lives.


Palme Doh!

The greatest crime in Michael Moore’s award of the Palme d’Or is that it tarnishes the reputation of a festival European glitterati giving that narcissistic moins que rien a standing ovation will only be surpassed when Woody Allen finally decamps for a house in Roman Polanski’s villa.

Of more immediate concern is the damage it does to the anti-Bush (not necessarily Democratic or lefty) movement.  In trying to determine how I can best influence (increasingly hypothetical) swing voters from not voting for Bush in November, I’ve come to the dismaying conclusion that the issue is beyond rational debate.1  If you’re going to vote for Bush, either you have identified yourself (correctly or not) with the subset of the population that will tangibly benefit from another four years of Bush, or you are operating from within a different epistemology than I am.  Either way, I can’t help you; this is simply not something about which reasonable people can disagree.

The only way that Bush opponents can be effective in creating the conditions for Bush supporters to drop their support is not to shame the movement; don’t give his supporters any reason to be embarrassed to criticize Bush, don’t confirm their prejudices, and don’t indulge in schoolyard taunting.  As shameful as they are, the scandals (Plame, Abu Ghraib, Chalabi) won’t sink Bush; his supporters rationalized them away long ago.  The only to way help our fellow Americans out of the Bush camp is to be more grown-up than Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter.  I’m looking at you, Franken.

[1]  Note that, in a pluralistic democracy, this sentiment is the secular equivalent of the Christian sin of despair; it is an abrogation of the civil contract that binds society.  Historically, this degree of apostasy has inevitably led to crime, insurrection, and civil war.  Check back in six months.


Drop The Chalabi

Something to bear in mind when trying to guess how the Bush Administration (and its myriad supporters) will try to square Chalabi’s pivotal role in justifying the war in Iraq with recent allegations that Chalabi, in addition to being an international con man of the first order, also passed American military secrets to Iran: when Bush’s supporters are asked why they support him, they consistently cite his motivation; "his heart’s in the right place."  The Bushies may well have decided that Chalabi’s last remaining utility is as a scapegoat, exploiting the ill-conceived "Bush is an idiot" meme.  Faced with the choice between admitting that Bush recklessly pursued the flimsiest of war justifications for political gain or concluding that Bush was well-intentioned but taken advantage of by a Bad Man, which do you think the American electorate would rather believe?


Slick Willi

Jim Henley gives us a lovely image: "Bush isn't Hitler; he’s Kaiser Wilhelm at best."  With his malformed arm, signifying helmet, and Freudian issues with Queen Victoria, the Kaiser seems comical and harmless from out here in the 21st century.  Then one remembers that, as Jim darkly hints, Wilhelm was a necessary (if not quite sufficient) condition for setting the stage for Adolf.


Send The Marines

Apocryphally, Tom Lehrer once claimed to have retired from satire after Henry Kissinger’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize rendered political satire obsolete.  This week, The Onion is having similar difficulty.


My Lai Or Yours?

There are several good reasons why a society such as ours might eschew endorsement of the use of torture.  It is notoriously poor at providing accurate informationIt irreparably damages our reputation as a force for civilizationIt invites similar retribution against our own people.

But the best reason we should renounce torture is that it unfits our torturers to return to society.  We ask our police, soldiers, and spies to test the bounds of decency and morality in the name of duty, and we are only partially successful at helping them reconcile their acts with their values.  We are no better at assimilating war criminals, nor should we aspire to be.

Unfortunately, the revelations coming out of Abu Ghraib won’t have the effect Bush opponents are hoping for.  Rumsfeld won’t resign, and even if he did, it wouldn’t matter; the policies that abetted these crimes won’t change without many more heads rolling.  More importantly, Bush won’t take much political damage.  Despite all the indignation and rending of garments, at the end of the day the only voters who have been permanently repulsed by these crimes are people who weren’t going to vote for Bush anyway.  Bush’s supporters have already condoned such "collateral damage" as the deaths of hundreds of innocent Iraqi civilians; why would they go wobbly over a few Mapplethorpe ripoffs?

I’m reminded of the West Wing episode where a Middle Eastern ambassador implies that exposing the President’s role in the assassination of an Arab politician would be politically embarrassing for the President.  Leo replies:

You think the President’s afraid that if he admitted complicity in Shareef’s death, he would lose votes in this country? To sweep all fifty states, the President would only need to do two things—blow the Sultan’s brains out in Times Square, then walk across the street to Nathan’s and buy a hot dog.
Far too many Americans have established—at whatever level of consciousness—a moral reciprocity between the horror of 9/11 and the horrors "incidentally" inflicted by our forces in Iraq.  This imbecility was given dumbfounding voice by Senator Lieberman on Thursday:

[The behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards] deserves the apology that [Secretary Rumsfeld has] given today and that have been given by others in high positions in our government and our military. I cannot help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001, never apologized.
International law, American military regulations, and kindergarten-level ethics all proscribe torture.  Bush is therefore constrained from publicly stating otherwise.  But through his swaggering rhetoric, systemic contempt for the rule of law, and casual invocation of theological alienation, Bush has encouraged the dehumanization of any Iraqi that doesn’t 100% support the American occupation of their country.  Clearly, the Bush Administration would have preferred that the Abu Ghraib report and photos had been released differently, but that they were released at all doesn’t lose Bush anyone he hadn’t already lost and it wins him support among those who find justice in such images.  All that remains is to affect a little contrition:

People in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know.
It might not be the America that George W. Bush knows, but if he is re-elected in November, it is the America that will be responsible.


Red State

Lileks once again poses as the Reasonable Man™:
Much huggermugger in the blogworld over the latest Rall cartoon; lots of speculation about whether he’ll be dropped from the syndicate, lose readership, meet up with an angry Tillman relative. But sometimes just being yourself is punishment enough. I have no idea if Mr. Rall is personally happy, although the one time I met him he didn’t strike me as a jolly old soul. But it has to be hard to be happy when one carries around so much bile and rage. It’s tiring. Anger wears you down, especially when your anger doesn’t seem to accomplish anything. Ted Rall’s cartoons could have run in every paper every day since 9/11 and there will still be kids who saw Tillman’s choice as a remarkable act. (Tillman’s Choice: there’s a phrase that sums up quite a lot, doesn’t it?) People like Rall are sitting on the curb, feet in the gutter, watching the parade go past, smirking at the guy with the baton, sneering at the cheerleaders. Everyone else watching the parade thinks I wonder if there will be elephants! And when they do appear, he rolls his eyes. Elephants. How obvious.

You want to live like that? I don’t want to live like that. Because when you see red all the time you miss things.
"Seeing red all the time;" why does that sound familiar?  Oh, yes.


"I Love My Gay Dead Son!"

I hate funerals; no one knows how to act, and everyone tries to comport themselves with what they think others’ ideas of piety and respectfulness are.  The bulk of my experience has been with American funerals, and there’s nothing more un-American than death.

The last funeral I attended was in France, but that, too, lacked a consensus as to proper comportment and sentiment.  No one wants to disturb mourners with challenges to the treacly bromides that are the common currency of such events, and the choice between quiet dignity and moist catharsis is rarely met with universal approval.  Even dressing is a chore; only the flowers are supposed to be attractive at a funeral.

It was therefore a wry pleasure to read the words of Rich, Pat Tillman’s youngest brother.  Drink up.