Memorial Day always causes a bit of a predicament for me. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have spent time in the military and who have even gone to war. And I don’t want to be disrespectful towards them. But I also have trouble hearing the phrase, “These soldiers died for our freedom,” and letting it roll off my back. This is because I happen to be a pacifist.
A pacifist, I have been told, is a ridiculous thing to be. War is a part of life, and hey, remember Hitler? Hitler is a good reason for war. Hitler was bad. Are you saying we should’ve let Hitler continue being Hitler? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Pacifism over.
But this misses the point. Pacifism is aspirational. It’s saying, sure, there was war, but must there be war? And is war as useful as we say it is? Asking questions like this can make certain universally accepted credos really hard to swallow. Like:
“They died for our freedom.”
“They died for our freedom” sounds really nice. It’s almost a Messianic sentence, suggesting that the men and woman who died died for a reason (and so few of us get to die for a reason), and that we benefitted from it directly. And it may, in some cases, be true. But there are a few problems with it.
1. If the war was unnecessary, then “They died for our freedom” can’t be a true statement.
You can get most Americans to admit the Vietnam War was a mistake. Even Robert McNamara, who oversaw the escalation of the war, eventually said it was a mistake. If nothing was gained from a war, then “They died for our freedom” is not true in an objective sense. We did not gain any freedoms from the Vietnam War, so the deaths of soldiers did not deliver any freedom to us.
2. Do “friendly fire” deaths count equally?
Were all friendly fire deaths necessary to win the war? For that matter, any other manner of accidental deaths — car crashes, equipment malfunctions, death by disease, death by starvation — all of these deaths can happen in war. Were these deaths necessary for our freedoms? Should we qualify which deaths protected our freedoms more?
3. Are these soldiers more valuable to us dead?
There’s a field of study called “counterfactuals,” where academics will try to predict what would have happened historically if something major had not happened. It’s more or less an impossible futile task, but it still raises interesting questions: what if Hitler had died in World War I? What if Native Americans had had immunity to smallpox when the Europeans arrived instead of the other way around? What if Khrushchev hadn’t backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Et cetera.
We have to ask: What if they’d lived? These soldiers that died in our wars, wouldn’t they have been even better assets to our society had they lived? Isn’t it possible that it’s better to live for freedoms than to die for them? When you’re alive, after all, you’re around to create and to build and to protect. Death doesn’t offer any of that. You could make the argument that the death was necessary for our freedoms, but you would have to ask: isn’t there more potential in a life than in a death?
4. Freedom isn’t that simple.
The things that we consider “freedoms” in our modern society are things that we created by building and strengthening systems and institutions of government. Yes, a safe space to build these institutions is essential for them to be able to exist, and at times military force is necessary to protect that space. But that safe space is often obtained and negotiated as much through diplomacy as it is through violence.
There’s nothing sexy about saying “Bureaucrats refused to be bribed for our freedoms,” but it’s just as true as saying “Soldiers died for our freedoms.” And freedom can be obtained peacefully (see Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.).
5. It’s actually super creepy to think of soldiers as sacrificial lambs.
Is freedom some ancient god that requires blood sacrifice for appeasement? Or is it way more complex than that? While it’s nice to think of soldiers as Messianic figures who made a really noble sacrifice for our country, it’s also inherently creepy to expect it from them. The fact that we paint all soldier deaths en masse as a blood sacrifice for our country is an almost tribal idea that we should probably have rejected by now.
6. You don’t know what every soldier is fighting for.
I have no doubt that soldiers fight for extremely noble, patriotic reasons. Some may fight because they feel indebted to their country, and some may fight because they are really idealistic, but others may be fighting for more practical reasons. Maybe the military was the best route out of poverty. Maybe they needed the discipline of the military to shape their lives up. Maybe they were violent sociopaths or racists looking for an excuse to kill people. All of these types of people exist in the military, and all soldiers fight for very different or personal reasons. To claim simply, “They died for our freedoms” is to write off their personal story and their humanity in favor of a small, mythologized view of them.
Disrespect for the dead
Ultimately, viewing soldier deaths as necessary or inevitable actually shows less of a regard for human life than viewing war deaths through a cold, unsentimental lens. By saying, “We could have done better,” we are acknowledging our mistakes in the past and are committing to preventing the same mistakes in the future. One of the best ways for us to show respect for our soldiers is to not send them into unnecessary wars where their sacrifice is unneeded.
If you want to show respect for the fallen soldiers, show it by refusing to fetishize them, and by not putting them into harms way in the future.