Memorial Day is trumpeted as a day “to honor the memory of America’s Fallen.” But rather than live up to that lofty goal, the Pentagon routinely falls short, lapsing into cosmetic rituals and empty rhetoric with volleys of ceremonial gunshots followed by volleys of commemorative clichés.
In public speeches, editorials and the Pentagon’s own Website, the rhetoric of sacrifice is rife with euphemism. The uniformed victims of war are always “heroes” (even though many of them died screaming in pain and begging God to let them live). They are “fallen soldiers” (which suggests mere misstep followed by a clean, almost balletic death — even though they may have been blown to bits or burned beyond recognition). They always “gave their lives” (when the fact is, there lives were taken from them. It would be more honest — and ironic — to note that suicide bombers “give their lives.” In contrast, most American soldiers hope to return alive and intact to a welcome from their families back home.)
But the worst offense — and one that gives the lie to the military’s empty prose — is the fact that, even on Memorial Day, the Pentagon’s Web site carries no comprehensive list of the names of the 5,400-plus men and women killed during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
How did the Defense (another euphemism) Department choose to celebrate May 31? The Pentagon’s Memorial Day edition featured a message from Secretary Gates and two stories on the ritual placing of flags — one ceremony at Arlington and another at a cemetery in Syracuse. Although there were links to “Memorial Day History” and “Arlington National Cemetery,” there were no links to any list acknowledging the names of the soldiers that the Pentagon and the White House were urging us all to “remember.” The names were not to be seen. The reality of these sacrifices remained invisible, safely sealed behind comforting platitudes. As far as the Pentagon is concerned, these “Fallen Heroes” appear to be better off forgotten.
True, the Pentagon provides a Daily Casualty Report, but the information is sketchy, at best, and often fails to offer an exact cause of death, explaining that the incident is “under investigation.” Each day, a new short-list appears, but there is no aggregation of the mounting human loss.
Instead of actually “honoring the dead,” the Pentagon’s Memorial Day Web page featured a story about the nation preparing to “pay tribute to fallen service members” by planting flags. Visitors were invited to “Observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m.” and “find ways to volunteer in your area to help the military and veterans.”Of the three “Memorial Day Events” that comprised the totality of the day’s featured news, one story reported how “Girl Scouts Learn Price of Freedom” by planting 2,000 American flags at a military cemetery under the tutelage of the American Legion. The accompanying photo showed three typically overweight American teen girls teaming up to push a single flag into the sod. (More details were available by clicking on a link to the “Family Matters Blog.”)
The second story reported Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ visit to a flag-planting ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The very act of planting flags, of course, serves as a distraction — calling attention away from the chilling message of the gravestones to the fluttering of tiny flags placed strategically in front of the markers bearing the names of the dead. If the dead were truly being honored for “protecting the flag,” it would make more sense to place the flags behind the tombstones. Apparently, the convenient political practice of “hiding behind the flag” continues, yea, unto death.
The final story proudly touted how “America’s senior military officer,” US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, interrupted his busy schedule and “took time out… to stress the importance of [the soldiers’] sacrifice.” Speaking to hundreds of families of dead soldiers at the “15th Annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors National Military Survivor Seminar” in Crystal City, Virginia, Mullen claimed our country was “blessed” by being the “best country that’s ever been, because of the service of those who raised their right hand and went off to do their nation’s bidding.”
Mullen assured the suffering survivors that the Pentagon would “never forget the sacrifice that your loved ones have made” and promised “to have your needs met: to be supported for the rest of your lives.” As evidence of the Pentagon’s concern with the unmet needs of the survivors, Mullen’s appearance was designed to coincide with the grand opening of a nearby therapy camp for the children of slain soldiers. Perhaps in homage to the comic strip Peanuts and Charlie Brown, the Pentagon has dubbed the children’s therapy center “Good Grief Camp.”
The Pentagon’s Memorial Day page made no mention of wars other survivors — the 38,000 veterans who returned home disfigured and incapacitated by grievous wounds. [Note: Anti-war.com estimates the number of US wounded may approach 100,000.] Nor did the Pentagon memorialize the estimated 320,000 combat soldiers who suffer from traumatic brain injuries. Nor was their mention of the fact that our veterans are killing themselves at a rate of 18 suicides a day. These deaths are clearly war-related but the names of these “fallen” are not entered in the roll call of official “war heroes.” The “ultimate sacrifice” these soldiers and their families experience earns them no special mention on the walls of the Pentagon or on the stones of Arlington. These “fallen service members” will not be officially honored or remembered on this Memorial Day.
For Americans interested in truly“remembering the fallen,” there are many alternatives to the Pentagon’s Daily Casualty Releases. AntiWar.com offers a list of “Casualties in Iraq” and “Casualties in Afghanistan” presented under the rubric of “The Human Cost of Occupation.” AntiWar.com also offers estimates on the number of military contractors, academics, journalists, and civilians that have been killed in these two wars. These human losses (as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani civilians killed) also need to be remembered on Memorial Day. Other resources include the venerable Iraq Body Count, Icausalties.org, Cost of War and the BBC.
The major TV networks have occasionally featured photos of soldiers who have recently “made the ultimate sacrifice,” but it is the Washington Post that comes closest to matching Memorial Day’s challenge to “never forget” the many men and women who have died “in their country’s service.” The Post’s sobering “Faces of the Fallen,” provides an online list of the all the wars’ dead with names and photos.
The Post’s example is one that the Pentagon would be well served to match. Meanwhile, enquiries asking why the Pentagon has so far failed to post a detailed and comprehensive list of all of our “fallen,” has gone unanswered.
Gar Smith is a prizewinning investigative journalist, magazine editor and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. This article was originally written for Memorial Day, but since the author was travelling it has arrived instead for July 4th.