southtownstar
SWEET 
Weather Updates

McGrath: Pvt. Tillman and our Memorial Day conundrum

Tillman

Tillman

storyidforme: 66803137
tmspicid: 9115205
fileheaderid: 4160469

Updated: June 26, 2014 6:35AM



President Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) said without irony that Memorial Day was a time to rejoice in the victorious battles in which soldiers gave their lives. He asked that flags not be flown at half mast for such a “joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration.”

Consider, on the other hand, that Switzerland does not have such a holiday. Nor does Liechtenstein or two dozen other neutral nations that have historically and assiduously avoided going to war.

Yet, Memorial Day remains our official holiday for honoring men and women killed while serving in the military. By and large, the victims have been young Americans, their lives cut short owing to the decisions of political leaders to wage war with other countries.

Think about it: Human decency obliges us to honor nearly 2 million men and women who perished in all the wars throughout our history, from the American Revolution, with about 25,000 killed, to our most recent war in Afghanistan, with about 7,000 dead and counting.

It’s why Memorial Day, known as Decoration Day in Harrison’s era, first was observed during the Civil War with the placement of flowers on graves. The tradition continued on an annual basis until it was declared an official national holiday in 1971.

But is there a danger that Memorial Day compels us to justify past wars, no matter how wrong, to bestow purpose to those lives lost in fighting them? Do the festive parades, speeches, picnics and flag waving glorify and pave the way for more wars?

In the Vietnam War, for example, roughly 58,000 members of my generation came home in body bags. The U.S. presidents of that era could have opted for neutrality, for zero fatalities.

Instead, the prestige of presiding over wartime victory, assumed to be a certainty because of history and American exceptionalism, led Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon to pursue an ugly Asian conflict with ill-defined goals. And the mindset of validation enabled them to persist against the advice of policy consultants and an ever-increasing number of protesting American citizens.

It’s tragic enough, if in honoring our war dead, we imply permission for future wars. But it is flat-out criminal when the U.S. government deceitfully exploits our war dead for the same purpose.

The obvious most recent example was the cover-up of Army Pvt. Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004. Tillman was a professional athlete who left fame and wealth as a member of the National Football League so he and his brother could join the Army Rangers and fight the Taliban following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After he was mistakenly shot to death by members of his team that had split up while on patrol, the Army concocted a fiction in which it posthumously awarded Tillman a Silver Star for acts of heroism that preceded his killing by enemy combatants.

Director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary film “The Tillman Story” (2010) chronicles the lies told by the military to the Tillman family and to the American public to use the dead soldier’s celebrity as a “propaganda tool” for then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq War, in the words of Tillman’s mother, Dannie.

And the media was complicit in the false memorializing. Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity of Fox News, for example, proclaimed on-air that they did not believe Tillman’s fellow Rangers and his family members who had said that while he volunteered to fight in Afghanistan, he was critical of the U.S. incursion into Iraq.

The Tillman debacle may also serve as a cautionary tale for the upcoming Benghazi investigation, in which politicians, under the guise of compassion for the surviving family of slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, seem poised instead to exploit his life and death for political gain.

Therefore, in view of our history in war, of both its shame and its valor, let’s decline President Harrison’s invitation to rejoice on Memorial Day. Let’s instead keep it a day of mourning in the hope that we have many fewer soldiers to mourn in the future.

David McGrath, a former resident of
Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.