Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day, 2012

There's an obelisk in a park in Oakridge, Oregon, dedicated to the memory of a man who died almost fifty years ago:

Image credit: Cujo359

The inscription is legible if you click on the photo and look at it full size. The short version is that First Sergeant Maximo Yabes, Company A, 4/9 Infantry Battalion, 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army, died protecting the men in his command on February 16, 1967 near Phu Hoa Dong, Vietnam. He earned the Congressional Medal of Honor that day, one of 154 service members who received the award posthumously in that war.

While reading that inscription on that lovely summer day, all I could think was "what a waste".

I know that First Sergeant Yabes wouldn't have agreed. What he did, he almost surely did for the reasons soldiers do most of the things they do in a war: to survive, to keep each other alive, or to do their duty. To them, I don't think it matters much at those moments why they were sent there.

From my perspective as a citizen of this country, though, it was a waste. It was a terrible waste of a courageous man, and all the others who died there or managed to return less than whole, to send them there to fight a war that wasn't necessary, and didn't serve our interests. The sad fact was that, unlike First Sergeant Yabes, the people who led our country then or since didn't follow his example and think of the people they were leading as their responsibility.

Which, I'm sad to say, is partly our fault as citizens. We chose those leaders. What's more, we choose, all too often, not to question why we send people to places like Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, or most of the other places we've sent them over the last 150 years.

In fact, many people treat the question as though it were a sign that we lack patriotism, or, perhaps most ironically, that we don't value our freedom. If you are one of the people who think that, then I have only one thing to say to you:

You have no idea what freedom means.

Freedom means the ability, and the duty, to question decisions like this. It's not just a contrary nature that leads me to write that - it's the experience of history. If there's one thing that nearly all wars from our own Revolution on have had in common, it's that they began because one side's leaders, at a minimum, did something stupid. They wanted to hold onto power, or wanted to extend it, or they just were too prideful to admit they could make a mistake. Our leaders are human beings, just as flawed and weak as the rest of us. They make mistakes, and the main difference between their mistakes and the ones the rest of us make is that they aren't the only ones paying for theirs.

In the end, that's what freedom really is - the ability to avoid the mistakes our leaders would make if we let them. I suggest that in the future, instead of just thinking about memorials and graves as we contemplate the cost of war, we use those freedoms all of the dead and the wounded supposedly fought for to prevent becoming involved in yet another useless war.

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