A deadly burden we expect others to bear

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Memorial Day is behind us, the day when we honor those members of our armed forces who made the supreme sacrifice for their country. It is right that we do so.

But as I was reminded last Sunday, those we honor on Memorial Day were asked to do more for us than I think we are willing to acknowledge. When they agree to put on the uniform, we implicitly ask those men and women to be willing to die for the rest of us. That’s the easy one.

We also ask them to be willing to kill on our behalf. That truth is harder.

It is a truth that the great American writer Mark Twain knew all to well, and in his 1906 short story, “The War Prayer,” starkly laid at the feet of a country swept up by war-fueled patriotic fervor. Take a few minutes and let Twain’s words sink in:

As a society, this is a moral burden we today seem all too eager to deny, to cavalierly place on others’ shoulders with a glib “Thank you for your service.” But this is a hard, crucial thing we have a duty to acknowledge, especially those of us who never served, or those who, like some present and past presidents, did all they could to actively avoid service.

This is the reality that veteran journalist James Fallows wrote about in the pages of The Atlantic, describing a “chickenhawk nation” in which we treat our military

both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules.

These things we ask others to do, for us and in our names, are especially important for all of us to remember as we hear, once again, war drums sounding from Washington. This time the target may be Iran. A few months ago it was Venezuela. Before that North Korea. Before that Syria. Before that Iraq. You get the picture.

The patriotic holidays that have come to define our summers, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, are opportunities for us to reflect on the burdens we ask others to shoulder on our behalf. And maybe, just maybe, to accept some responsibility for them ourselves.