Selective Memory Day

28 May

Hero of WarOn Memorial Day, it’s fitting to recall, that not all Americans considered the day worth celebrating.

In its original incarnation as a product of the Civil War, Memorial Day was divisive and triumphalist, a Northern institution. If it were more widely remembered that the day began with this focus, we might be less enthusiastic about it today. After all, we have mixed feeling about having fallen into civil war in the first place. Perhaps re-purposing is central to our commemorations today.

Progressives have long been uncomfortable with the idea of a day dedicated to soldiers killed in the nation’s wars. Conflicts like James K. Polk’s Mexican War, William McKinley’s Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt’s Philippines War, Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War, and George W. Bush’s Iraq War were wars of aggression, seeking territory or resources or both. No one would want to exalt these seedy episodes in American history, however much we regret the soldiers’ lives expended.

Polk imposed a poll tax to pay for his Mexican War, which Henry David Thoreau declined to pay. He had authored, the first year of the war (1846), a work he entitled “Civil Disobedience,” staking out the right of individuals to decline to obey unjust laws. Thoreau went to jail for a night over the stance he took on the poll tax, until someone paid his bail. There is an anecdote that his friend, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to see him in jail. Emerson exclaimed, “What are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what you are doing out there?”

Perhaps the day would best be re-purposed as the day when disgruntled veterans throw tiny bits of metal and make speeches. Better yet, how about a day when bureaucrats do their jobs, and veterans take a day off?

As of May 20, the VA had 838,821 claims waiting to be processed. Two-thirds of those claims—559,186 of them—have been pending for over 125 days and have been classified as “backlogged.” An additional 249,604 claim appeals are pending, from veterans who believe the VA ruled incorrectly on their initial claims. The average wait time for a claim to be completed is 345 days, but appeals can take much longer.

“At some offices, the wait is disastrous. It’s unbelievably long,” said Paul Sullivan, a Gulf war veteran, former VA official, and the current managing director of public affairs for Bergmann & Moore, a law firm which helps veterans with claims appeals.

By February 2014, some 34,000 soldiers may have returned home from Afghanistan. Most of those who have already come back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will spend this Monday observing Memorial Day and paying tribute to those who did not make it home. But for a large portion of the survivors, the danger is not yet over. Thousands of soldiers make it through enemy fire only to find their lives–or at least their health and financial security–threatened by bureaucratic inefficiency.

I’d like to thank my grandfather, a Navy veteran of the Italian campaign, for demonstrating that fighting with wit and intelligence is more constructive than war.

Here’s a Tim McIlrath song, “Hero of War”.

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One Response to “Selective Memory Day”

  1. robakers 28 May 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    Thanks for your service.

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