Happy Remembrance Day!

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, God must love veterans; He makes so many of them.

We just finished “celebrating” Veteran’s Day earlier this month, complete with the usual parades and the show of flags, but it’s worth remembering that Nov. 11 wasn’t always a day for blindly glorifying the military.

When November 11 was initially established as a US holiday, it was done by an Act of Congress to commemorate the cease-fire established on the Western front between the forces of Germany and those of the French, British and Americans. The name of the holiday–Remembrance Day in the UK and Commonwealth countries, Armistice Day in the US–was only changed in America to Veterans Day after the Korean War, when the US was well on the way to being transformed into a permanent war machine.

World War I dead litter a roadWorld War I dead litter a road

The original day was established to condemn war and to recall the horrors of a senseless military conflict that caused the deaths of over 20,000,000 people. As the Act stated, “…it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

These days, Veteran’s Day is not about pacifism or condemning war, it’s about blind flag-waving patriotism and celebrating our “heroes” in uniform, and of course desperate sales by financially struggling retail establishments (originally it was a day to be marked by a “cessation of business,” but since Pres. George Bush’s call, after the 9-11 attacks, was for Americans to “go out and shop,” it should be no surprise that that is the major American activity on Nov. 11).

It’s worth recalling, because nobody talks about these things, that over two million Americans have been sent to serve tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a pretty big number–maybe more than 1% of the adult US population.

Over 600,000 of those people have been treated at medical facilities of the Veterans Administration. Countless more are suffering, undiagnosed or untreated, from ailments and injuries like undiagnosed head trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression etc. More than half of the people who are homeless in the US are veterans, many of them veterans of the latest of America’s endless string of wars.

It is common to hear politicians and corporate media hacks talk about how America’s veterans and active-duty troops are “defending our freedoms.”

This is nothing but an indoctrinated response.

It does no disrespect to Americans in uniform to state the truth that America’s freedoms have never been threatened by Afghanistan’s Taliban, any more than they were threatened by tinpot dictator Saddam Hussein. And even the terrorists who have bombed American buildings or downed American planes never threatened our freedom for a second. Any damage to American freedom–and there has been plenty of damage done since Sept. 11, 2001–has been done by our own government, and by ourselves, not by outsiders.

We need to stop referring to November 11 as Veterans Day, and get it back to what it was originally and remains in many parts of the world–Remembrance Day–a day to contemplate the horror and futility of war.

We Americans need to stop blindly praising people in uniform, and instead start asking what those men and women could be doing if they weren’t sucking up valuable tax dollars, and if they weren’t going over to desperately poor Third World countries and blowing up tens of thousands of innocent people who are just struggling to survive. (I’m not denying that individual men and women in uniform have committed remarkable acts of heroism, saving comrades under fire, etc., but they are the exceptions. Nor am I saying that those who served in war believing they were doing the right thing don’t deserve respect for their actions, confused or deluded as those actions might have been. But the real heroes in my book are those who refuse illegal orders or who, after recognizing that war is a racket, stand up to the war machine and refuse to continue to serve. They get no medals for their actions, and instead often get hard time in prison.)

Let’s just take Afghanistan. This landlocked country, one of the poorest in the world, has about 28 million people, not counting the three million refugees living in Pakistan and Iran. Forty-two percent of those people survive on an income of $1 per day, or $365 per year. The rest aren’t much better off.

The US has, thus far, spent $364 billion dollars on the war in Afghanistan, according to the National Priorities Project, about half of what has been spent to date on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

That means that if, instead of blowing up buildings and killing people in Afghanistan, the US had spent even half of that sum on simply improving the incomes of Afghan citizens, each Afghan would, over the last ten years, have been receiving $650 a year, virtually tripling their annual income.

Would such a country be an enemy or host to an enemy of the US in such circumstances? I think not! And of course to achieve such a happy outcome we wouldn’t actually have to spend anywhere near that much. Even a fraction of that amount, if donated and spent properly in a desperately poor nation like Afghanistan, would allow the country to rise out of poverty and develop a working economy, free of war and violence–a process that could be replicated all over the world with the rest of the money currently wasted on war.

Would we have hundreds of thousands of injured veterans filling VA hospitals, or thousands of mentally disturbed and financially destitute veterans huddling around oil drum fires in our cities in such circumstances? No.

And what if we had been able to take the other half of that wasted $364 billion–about $182 billion, and spend it at home on, say, education funding? Would we currently be laying off several hundred thousand teachers? Would students in inner city schools in cities like Philadelphia be packed 40 or more to a room, with too few desks, reading history and science texts published in the 1980s? No.

The Obama administration came into office in January 2009 promising to escalate, and win, the “good” war in Afghanistan and to start bringing the troops home by 2011. The same administration also said it would quickly end the “bad” war in Iraq. Almost two years later on the eve of this Remembrance Day, we learned that they now plan to continue fighting in Afghanistan into 2014, which is two years after what is likely to be the end of Obama’s only term of office. The war in Afghanistan is going badly, and the truth is it is being lost. Meanwhile, the US still has left 50,000 troops in Iraq, where they are likely to remain for years, because the US has essentially lost that war too (Iraq is now run by a government that is allied to Iran, a country viewed as, if not an enemy, then at least a rival to US interests in the Middle East).

Are America’s freedoms stronger today because of America’s invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, and of Iraq in 2003?

Surely not! In that time, we have seen the creation and expansion of a vast government-run surveillance program that is monitoring all of our electronic communications. Our cities have been instituting police-state-style “stop-and-frisk” campaigns that now have one-in-four residents in Philadelphia and one-in-five residents in New York getting spread-eagled and patted down at random by cops, who increasingly dress like combat soldiers and carry automatic weapons. We are being intimidated into submitting to repeated X-rays when we want to fly, and now may even find ourselves being secretly X-rayed by mobile X-ray-vans as we drive down the highway. Our president has signed an executive order giving himself the power to order the summary extra-judicial execution of American citizens anywhere in the world. The first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and tenth and amendments, added as a Bill of Rights to the Constitution in 1791 to protect our freedoms, are all under assault by Congress, the president and the courts. There is now even a military command for the US, with the clear task of imposing martial law should we have another major alleged terror incident.

No, our soldiers are not defending our freedom. They are defending the interests of the military-industrial complex, about which outgoing president and former five-star commander of US forces in WWII Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us in his farewell address.

As Eisenhower said in 1953:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron…Is there no other way the world may live?

America has been at war now in Afghanistan for more than nine years, and is likely to still be at war there in 2014 and longer. We’re still at war in Iraq, too, and have been since March 2003. Each November 11, instead of stupidly waving flags and intoning the mantra “Support the troops!,” this is the question Americans should be asking our political leaders, and ourselves.