Kandahar or Cleveland? ‘Come Home, America’

South Argyle, NY: Presbyterian Cemetery 4/22/11

           The best way to honor America’s military dead  – whether those who died in service or those who returned to civilian life – is to gage how our country today measures up to the ideals we sent them to fight for.

           As Abraham Lincoln said at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

 Instead we should ask, not every Memorial Day but every day, whether our ‘nation, conceived in liberty,’ remains ‘dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal”.’

          And we should ask whether we are meeting Lincoln’s great challenge to us:

 …It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us… —that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain —that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom —and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. [1]

For the past decade, Andrew J. Bacevich has not feared to raise these questions.


           In an author note to his May 28 column, ‘How America Screws its Soldiers’, The Daily Beast says, ‘Andrew J. Bacevich [2] is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.’

           Prof. Bacevich is also a retired colonel in the US Army who served in Vietnam and the Gulf.  He is the leading critic of American military policy, a role he was assuming before his son’s death in Iraq.  I have written on Prof. Bacevich in ‘Investing (or not) in ‘Defense Inc.’

           Before spotting his Daily Beast piece, I’d planned to write on another of his essays which seemed apt for today, Memorial Day.  Of that more below.


           In the The Daily Beast, Prof. Bacevich considers the meaning of ‘supporting our troops’

 From the perspective of the American people, the principal attribute of this relationship is that it entails no real obligations or responsibilities. Face it: It costs us nothing yet enables us to feel good about ourselves. In an unmerited act of self-forgiveness, we thereby expunge the sin of the Vietnam era when opposition to an unpopular war found at least some Americans venting their unhappiness on the soldiers sent to fight it….

 ‘Support our troops’ has accomplished what similar mantras failed to do in the 60s:  silence dissent and stifle thinking about our choices. [3]


           Bacevich continues his thoughts for Memorial Day:

From the perspective of those who engineer America’s wars, the principal attribute of this [support our troops] relationship is that it obviates any need for accountability. For nearly a decade now, popular willingness to “support the troops” has provided unlimited drawing rights on the United States Treasury.

 …By the time the last invoice gets paid, the total will be in the trillions. Is the money being well spent? Are we getting good value? Is it possible that some of the largesse showered on U.S. forces trying to pacify Kandahar could be better put to use in helping to rebuild Cleveland? Given the existing terms of the civil-military relationship, even to pose such questions is unseemly. For politicians sending soldiers into battle, generals presiding over long, drawn-out, inconclusive campaigns, and contractors reaping large profits as a consequence, this war-comes-first mentality is exceedingly agreeable.

           A year ago this weekend, I wound up a journey through post-industrial and post-family-farm America which I wrote about in ‘“Bare Ruined Choirs”:  A Trip Around Ohio’ and ‘Surprise!  It’s Columbus!!’  Kandahar or Cleveland?  Kabul or Canton?  Mesopotamia or the Midwest?  Those are the questions neither Obama nor Ryan addressed in their budgets.

           This gross failure matches the Republicans’ deliberate obliviousness to a major public motivation behind the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935.  These were ‘The forgotten men’, the men who said, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’  In the myths of the time, they were WWI veterans. [4]

           Those same vets made a persuasive case for the removal of President Hoover when they marched on Washington in the Spring of 1932, asking for early payment of the bonuses due them for serving in WWI.  The Bonus Army shook the country. [5]

           You can hear the echoes of their boots in the twentieth century’s great social legislation – from the GI Bill which paid to educate ‘the greatest generation’ through Medicare which paid for their healthcare until death.


           A year after Barack Obama’s election, Prof. Bacevich questioned his commitment to send more troops into Afghanistan, the quick sands of imperial armies.  I’m sorry to say his lead essay, ‘The War We Can’t Win’, in the November 2009 Harper’s is as acute and timely today as it was when he wrote it.

           What caught my eye were these two paragraphs which seem appropriate texts on which to meditate today:

 If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself.  Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: ‘Come home, America.’  The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on ‘the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.’

 Dr. King’s list of evils may need a bit of tweaking – in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three.  Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril…. [6]



           1.  The Gettysburg website contains an astonishing typo in this section of the Address.  Accessed May 30, 2011, 11 a.m.

           2.  The Wikipedia entry I’ve linked to seems dodgy.  I recommend intensive detail checking.

           3.  Bacevich is one of a tiny number of Americans willing to take a public position on America’s Asian wars of choice and its global imperial policy.

           4.  By far the best extant example is ‘the forgotten man number’ in the superb but neglected Busby Berkeley musical, ‘Footlight Parade’ (1933).  A real stunner, that.

           5.  Progressives, like me, would like to forget Franklin Roosevelt’s shameful role in the controversy over the bonus.  The bonus passed Congress over Roosevelt’s veto in 1936.  His act of fiscal responsibility signaled his nearly cataclysmic balanced budget of 1937.

           6.  For rhetorical reasons, I omitted Prof. Bacevich’s final sentence: ‘That Barack Obama should fail to realize this qualifies as not only ironic but inexplicable.’  Eighteen months later, it remains inexplicable.