Veterans Day and Memorial Day are really the same bullshit twice a year. This article by myself and Kali Rubaii, which originally appeared in STIR Journal on May 25, 2014, is an argument against the selective memory that is characteristic on these holidays.
On Memorial Day, What We Choose to Remember and What We Forget
By Kali Rubaii and Ross Caputi
On Memorial Day we are called upon to remember those who died fighting America’s wars. But we are also asked to forget. We applaud politely as veterans march in parades. Ribbons and medals, flags and fancy uniforms flood our senses, and everyone is content with the atmosphere of honor, pride, and patriotism.
We remember the men and women who died wearing those uniforms, but we forget the men and women killed for wearing different uniforms. There are other victims of war, too, civilians whose lives were extinguished in the course of military campaigns, but most Americans never see them. A few linger in our collective memory—Mai Lai, Wounded Knee, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. But on Memorial Day it is impolite to speak of them.
Support for our troops is depoliticized, a national sacrament for all to participate in regardless of political affiliation. Like the victims of our wars, why these veterans died is forgotten. America’s wars are sanitized, abstracted from their historical and political context. We are asked to remember the men and women who died, while forgetting the reality of what they participated in. It is a pleasant fairytale, but one which comes at a price cashed out in human blood.
On this day more than others we are spared the inconvenient memory of hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq, millions in Vietnam, millions in Korea. Most Americans have never seen their blood or smelled their rotting corpses. They have no personal experience that might give them pause about the nobility or the benevolence of our wars.
How we choose to celebrate Memorial Day is the apex of a broader culture of selective remembering and forgetting. It is a culture that shields us from the unpleasant knowledge of our past violence, from our responsibility for that violence, and, consequently, from the wisdom to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Just as this culture prepares the next generation to follow in the footsteps of those we remember on Memorial Day, it also forsakes our war victims abroad.
Fallujah is a recent example. Few campaigns have been so selectively remembered and forgotten in U.S. military history. Fallujah, a city of 300,000 people roughly 50 miles west of Baghdad, was considered to be the strongest point of resistance against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Coalition Forces launched two major operations in 2004 to sack Fallujah, reminiscent of Rome’s sacking of Carthage. They were the largest and the bloodiest operations of the entire occupation of Iraq, and they have been recorded in a half-dozen books as heroic battles to “liberate” the city of Fallujah from terrorists. What is left out of these histories is that between 4,000 and 6,000 civilians were killed. Much of the city was turned to rubble. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to the ground. More than 200,000 people became refugees.
Since those operations, Fallujah has experienced dramatic increases in the rates of birth defects and cancers. Approximately 14% of all children born in Fallujah are born with birth defects. Cancer rates in children are 12 times what is expected in a healthy population. Research suggests that pollution from war is the primary cause. While this is perhaps one of the most severe public health crises ever studied, it has received marginal attention from the U.S. media. The weapon systems that caused this are still in use. Since so few know about this, almost nothing is being done to prevent this from happening to another population, or to help the population we have already devastated.
Fallujah is an extreme example, but the pattern holds for all of Iraq. Since the first U.S.-led invasion in 1991, Iraq was catapulted from a nation emerging as a developed cosmopolitan country, to one of the most dangerous, divided, and desperate places in the world. Prior to the first Gulf War, Iraq was a medical tourism destination. Iraq’s medical facilities were the best in the region, and Iraqis enjoyed universal health care and higher education. After the first Gulf War, the United Nations, under pressure from the U.S., placed sanctions on Iraq that prevented hospitals from obtaining basic medicines and supplies. Food staples became scarce across Iraq. More than half a million children died from starvation or treatable diseases. Iraqi doctors watched helplessly as children suffocated to death from asthma because inhalers were one of many restricted resources.
After the 2nd U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, the main governing body of the occupation, immediately embarked on a policy of “state destruction.” Many of Iraq’s institutions were dismantled, including military and police forces. More than 200 of Iraq’s state-owned industries were privatized. Sweeping changes to Iraq’s political and social institutions were put in place by the occupation.
Iraq’s intellectual class was “purged,” further decimating academic and medical facilities and contributing to the process of “cultural cleansing.” Many who embodied Iraqi culture—public intellectuals, doctors, artists—were assassinated. Museums and historic monuments were looted and destroyed. As a result of this dismantlement, Iraq’s diverse ways of life were either altered or eliminated entirely. Its ancient agricultural system, historic seed bank, marsh Arab culture, and minority religious practices were forced to adjust to a new militarized climate. Entire communities were displaced, robbing people of their historical bond with their landscape. And new social divisions, which previously held little significance, entrenched resentments and fears throughout the country and fueled civilian war.
The estimated number of “excess deaths” resulting from the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation ranges from 650,000 to 1.5 million. The number of displaced people, both within Iraq and those forced to flee their country, is estimated to be between 3.5 to 5 million. The land and waterways left behind by the dead and displaced are now saturated with contaminations with half-lives of billions of years. This is just a snapshot of the harm brought to Iraq by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.
On Memorial Day, we remember victorious battles and heroic stories about them; we forget the legacy of death, deformity, and social unraveling those battles leave in their wake. If we remembered, we would have to face questions about responsibility, reparations, and the limited possibilities for repair. But healing from these unspoken atrocities requires total memory, memory that incorporates both the truth of violence and the possibilities for restoration.
Consider the cells of a body, where a cut slowly reintegrates two sides of broken flesh. Cells collaborate, re-gather, and coalesce to heal. They do not forget the injury; they form a scar, a mark to remember the violence. Scars remind us that healing and repair are incomplete in the face of the irreparable, that the texture and continuity of our bodies and societies are forever disrupted by violence. The scar is evidence of truth, the trace of harm. But a scar also marks the healing project itself, the act of repair. Applied to the societal level, repair and restoration require us to remember what life was like or could have been, and to restore continuity to that life.
This kind of repair goes by many names. Islah, in Arabic, means “repair, reconciliation, and restoration.” Islah is a concept of restorative justice that, like a scar, never forgets past violence and never erases it. It means that collective healing requires reconciliation with the truth, and the active work of all people to restore and repair what has been damaged.
The case for repair in Fallujah offers two dilemmas. First, in the wake of irreparable damage, how is repair possible? And second, how do we in the U.S. share in the repair of Iraq without perpetuating the spread of empire? While these questions are impossible to fully answer, they guide us to a cognate repair: reparations.
Reparations are like a scar, in that they accomplish many things at once in the healing process. Reparations, particularly those volunteered through individuals instead of governments, mean active, material giving. Neither aid nor charity, reparations acknowledge our responsibility for harming Iraqi people, whether by direct participation, by passively funding the military enterprise through sales and income tax, or by simply benefiting from the occupation as a member of our country.
Reparations give both Americans and Iraqis the opportunity to reconcile with one another, to interact and heal from the violence of the occupation. Reparations, as with any form of repair, are incomplete and patchy. In the wake of irreparable damage and an irreversible legacy of intergenerational violence (birth defects, contaminated soil, half-lives of billions of years), repair is incomplete. As heiresses and heirs to a global empire, we cannot take back our role in the ongoing violence in Iraq. We can only take responsibility, and act on that responsibility. Islah (reparations) allows us to reframe our good intentions and situate them in the context of our place in the world order.
We need a shift from a culture of triumphalism and impunity to a culture of reparations. Memorial Day is emblematic of a culture that shields our national psyche from responsibility. The culture of veneration for veterans, which is so wholly embraced on Memorial Day, obscures questions about war crimes, imperial domination, or accountability. By defining our veterans as heroes, we render almost unthinkable the possibility that they may have participated in something immoral and harmful. Thus, we find egregious gaps and silences in what we choose to remember. This needs to change.
If we challenge ourselves to be the catalysts of this cultural change, Memorial Day can provide us with an opportunity to rehabilitate our memories. We can choose to remember ways of coexisting that do not require military might or national valor. We can choose to consider alternative paradigms of peace that don’t involve total military pacification. We can choose to acknowledge both our own soldiers and the victims of their work in one colliding sweep.
Through rehabilitating our memories, we will come to celebrate Memorial Day differently. And our national treatment of veterans will change, too. For too long, U.S. veterans have been categorized to suit the needs of partisan politics. To some, veterans are heroes without question. To others, they are helpless victims of government propaganda and manipulation. And to others, they are bloodthirsty murderers. There have been efforts by veterans to define themselves in American society. But veterans have rarely been able to assert themselves not as victims, or as heroes, or as monsters, but as human beings, competent moral agents who made a mistake and participated in something they did not understand.
Finally, reparations are memory put into practices, not simply a national mentality. Reparations are a set of actions, a genuine material embrace of the truths we choose to acknowledge. To remember wholly and acknowledge fully what is lost or destroyed, one cannot simply say, “I remember,” or, “I acknowledge my responsibility.” Active memory is to say, “I remember, therefore I take responsibility,” whether this means giving a percentage of your income to a project that helps restore Iraqi society, or giving your time to raise awareness about the harm our society has wrought abroad.
Acts of reparations are healing, and not just for the victims of violence. With the emphasis in recent years on how moral injury affects veterans, we should embrace reparations as a way for our society, civilians and veterans, to assert their humanity and rebuild our moral self-image. This process must begin with remembering. We must remember other ways of being and other systems of justice. We must remember that war is not the answer everywhere and always, and that echoing war is a call for repair, for restoring that which can be so easily forgotten.