Memorial Day is, as former North Carolina Senator John Edwards reminds us, "a serious holiday." And this year, in particular, it falls at what Edwards rightly refers to as "a serious time."
It is unfortunate but true that on this Memorial Day — when we pause to honor those Americans who have fought the good fights against British colonialism, the sin of slavery and the menace of fascism — is marred by the painful reality that U.S. troops are currently bogged down in a quagmire of George Bushs creation in Iraq.
The Iraq imbroglio is not a good fight. It is not even a necessary fight.
The United States should never have invaded and occupied Iraq. That country posed no threat to America or her allies. Indeed, Iraq was a secular island in a region of religious ferment and, as such, served as a frequently troubling but generally useful bulwark against the spread of anti-American fundamentalisms. Obviously, Americans who worry about human rights — a group in which the proponents of war with Iraq never counted themselves — wanted an end to the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein. But, as in any country, the job of removing Iraq’s dictator belonged to the Iraqi people, not to an invasion force sent at the whim of a pair of oil men who salivated at the prospect of turning a distant country’s petrol riches into a boon for their long-time partners in the energy industry.
If George Bush and Dick Cheney cared one wit about the men and women in the U.S. armed services, they would not have dispatched them to Iraq.
Yet, now that roughly 150,000 Americans are stuck in the middle of the entirely predictable civil war that resulted from a poorly planned invasion and badly bungled occupation, Bush and Cheney have the audacity to claim the only way to "support the troops" is to keep them on the killing field that has taken close to 3,500 American lives and left tens of thousands of our finest young men and women permanently disabled.
The cynicism of the current administration, which is led by a president whose family pulled strings to keep him out of the Vietnam War and a vice president who dodged the draft five times during that conflict, is beyond contempt. But so, too, is the cynicism of many Democrats who, despite their disdain for the failed foreign policies of Bush and Cheney, continue to echo the empty rhetoric of the administration when it comes to the debate about how best to end the war.
There is only one way to "support the troops" in this conflict, and Edwards has summed it up well in his call for a respectful Memorial Day agitation to extract U.S. forces from Bush’s war of whim. "The American people voted last fall to stand by our troops, end the war, and bring our soldiers home. The Congress [in early May] sent the president a bill that would fund the troops and bring them home," argues the most outspoken war critic among the leading contenders for the 2OO8 Democratic presidential nomination. "But President Bush has embarked on a stubborn path — rejecting the will of the people and Congress. He is not only continuing the disastrous war in Iraq, but is escalating our presence there and vetoing [measures] that would support the troops. It has become clear that the only way to support our troops and end the war is by direct action — by democracy."
Of course, Edwards has been attacked for calling on Americans to use this Memorial Day to rally, lobby and pray for an exit strategy from the Iraq nightmare.
"Some will say that this weekend is not the right time to ask Americans to stand together and tell the president and Congress to end this war. They may say it is not patriotic, or that it does not honor the fallen," explains the presidential candidate. "I strongly disagree. I believe that Memorial Day is exactly the right time to honor the memory of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom, and to honor the troops serving us today."
Adds Edwards, "It has been said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Mark Twain once wrote that the government must not ‘decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.’ President Theodore Roosevelt went even farther. He said that to say there should be no criticism of a president is not only ‘unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American public."
Edwards has hit on the essential theme for this Memorial Day. It is often said that U.S. troops are fighting for democracy. But fights for democracy can only be considered successful when American democracy is open and vibrant enough to allow for a realistic discussion of the nation’s circumstance. Those "my-country-right-or-wrong" politicians and pundits who would shut down dissent on Memorial Day, or any other day, make a mockery of the president’s rhetoric about fighting for democracy.
In contrast, by suggesting that this Memorial Day is the right time to challenge the Bush administration’s false assertions and failed policies, Edwards is marking himself as precisely the sort of bold leader that America will need in the post-Bush era.
Recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s Vietnam War-era counsel that Americans must move beyond "the prophesying of smooth patriotism" toward "a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history," Edwards argues, as should we all, that: "This Memorial Day weekend, we should all take up Dr. King’s call to action. It is time to take back patriotism from a president who has misused it to justify policies that have exacted such terrible costs — from Guantanamo Bay to domestic spying to the war in Iraq itself. Let us reclaim patriotism for all of us who love our country, support our troops, and are ready to end the war — and to bring these brave servicemen and women home to the heroes’ welcome they deserve."
John Nichols’ new book is