Memorial Day Myth-Busting
Above Photo: From Davidswanson.org
“Memorial Day is a time to remember, appreciate, and honor the selfless patriots who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to freedom. At a time when our country seems so divided, we must not forget that it is because of their service and sacrifice that we live in the most free and prosperous nation on Earth.” —Congressman Tom Garrett
It would be difficult to count all of the lies in the above statement. Let’s just highlight a few.
Let’s start with “most free.”
The British-based Legatum Institute, which ranks the United States 18th in overall “prosperity,” ranks it 28th in “personal freedom.”[i] The U.S.-based Cato Institute ranks the United States 24th in “personal freedom” and 11th in “economic freedom.”[ii] The Canadian-based World Freedom Index ranks the United States 27th in a combined consideration of “economic,” “political,” and “press” freedoms.[iii] The U.S.-government-funded Freedom House ranks the United States 16th in “civil liberties.”[iv] The French-based Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States 43rd in “press freedom.”[v] The U.S.-based Heritage Foundation ranks the United States 18th in “economic freedom.”[vi]The Spanish-based World Index of Moral Freedom ranks the United States 7th.[vii] The British-based Economist Magazine‘s Democracy Index has the United States in a three-way tie for 20th place.[viii] The CIA-funded Polity Data Series gives the U.S. democracy a score of 8 out of 10, but gives 58 other countries a higher score.[ix] Some of these sources’ conceptions of freedom are at odds with each other, as well as with my own conception of a good society. The point is that virtually nobody, on the left or the right or anywhere else, ranks the United States as the leader in liberty, by any definition — not even in the “economic liberty” of capitalism. Related, albeit inversely, to freedom is incarceration, where the United States does rank first in overall number of prisoners, and in per-capita rate of imprisonment (with the possible exception of the Seychelles Islands).[x]
Let’s also consider “most . . . prosperous.”
The United States has the largest nominal gross domestic product (GDP).[xi] In GDP based on purchasing power parity (PPP), however, the United States trails China and the European Union.[xii] (PPP is a means of calculating exchange rates between currencies that controls for variations in cost of living and pricing.) In neither measure of wealth is the United States a leader per capita.[xiii] And, even if it were, that wouldn’t mean what it sounds like for most people in the United States, because this country with the biggest bucket of cash also has it distributed the most unequally of any wealthy nation, giving the United States both the biggest collection of billionaires[xiv] on earth and the highest or nearly highest rates of poverty and child-poverty among wealthy nations.[xv] The United States ranks 111th out of 150 countries for income equality, according to the CIA[xvi], or 100th out of 158, according to the World Bank[xvii], while for equitable distribution of wealth (a very different measure from income), according to one calculation[xviii], the United States ranks 147th out of 152 countries.
In December 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty issued a report on the United States that included these lines:[xix]
- US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
- Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the US and its peer countries continues to grow.
- US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries.
- Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
- The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
- In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly five times the OECD average. [OECD means the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organization that has 35 member countries.]
- The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14 percent across the OECD.
- The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
- In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
- According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries.
- The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
So, not most prosperous, not by a very long shot. What about opportunity or social mobility? Isn’t the “freedom” of the United States in fact bound up with the idea that, while most people are not the wealthiest, any of them could become the wealthiest with enough hard work? In reality, while there are always exceptions, there are less upward mobility and more firmly entrenched economic classes in the United States than in other wealthy countries.[xx]
Now, consider “gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
The fact is that the “volunteer” military is the one “volunteer” activity on earth that one is not permitted to cease volunteering for. Desertion means punishment. Nor is the expected end date of a contract enforceable if the military should happen to choose to extend it. Nor is signing up in the first place always strictly voluntary.
According to the Not Your Soldier Project:
“The majority of military recruits come from below-median income neighborhoods.
“In 2004, 71 percent of black recruits, 65 percent of Latino recruits, and 58 percent of white recruits came from below-median income neighborhoods.
“The percentage of recruits who were regular high school graduates dropped from 86 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2006.
“[The recruiters] never mention that the college money is difficult to come by — only 16 percent of enlisted personnel who completed four years of military duty ever received money for schooling. They don’t say that the job skills they promise won’t transfer into the real world. Only 12 percent of male veterans and 6 percent of female veterans use skills learned in the military in their current jobs. And of course, they downplay the risk of being killed while on duty.”
In a 2007 article Jorge Mariscal cited analysis by the Associated Press that found that “nearly three-fourths of [U.S. troops] killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average.”
“It perhaps should come as no surprise,” wrote Mariscal,
“that the Army GED Plus Enlistment Program, in which applicants without high school diplomas are allowed to enlist while they complete a high school equivalency certificate, is focused on inner-city areas.
“When working-class youth make it to their local community college, they often encounter military recruiters working hard to discourage them. ‘You’re not going anywhere here,’ recruiters say. ‘This place is a dead end. I can offer you more.’ Pentagon-sponsored studies — such as the RAND Corporation’s ‘Recruiting Youth in the College Market: Current Practices and Future Policy Options’ — speak openly about college as the recruiter’s number one competitor for the youth market. . . .
“Not all recruits, of course, are driven by financial need. In working-class communities of every color, there are often long-standing traditions of military service and links between service and privileged forms of masculinity. For communities often marked as ‘foreign,’ such as Latinos and Asians, there is pressure to serve in order to prove that one is ‘American.’ For recent immigrants, there is the lure of gaining legal resident status or citizenship. Economic pressure, however, is an undeniable motivation. . . .”
Mariscal understands that there are many other motivations as well, including the desire to do something useful and important for others. But he believes those generous impulses are being misdirected:
“In this scenario, the desire to ‘make a difference,’ once inserted into the military apparatus, means young Americans may have to kill innocent people or become brutalized by the realities of combat. Take the tragic example of Sgt. Paul Cortez, who graduated in 2000 from Central High School in the working-class town of Barstow, Calif., joined the Army, and was sent to Iraq. On March 12, 2006, he participated in the gang rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her entire family.
“When asked about Cortez, a classmate said: ‘He would never do something like that. He would never hurt a female. He would never hit one or even raise his hand to one. Fighting for his country is one thing, but not when it comes to raping and murdering. That’s not him.’ Let us accept the claim that ‘that’s not him.’ Nevertheless, because of a series of unspeakable and unpardonable events within the context of an illegal and immoral war, ‘that’ is what he became. On February 21, 2007, Cortez pled guilty to the rape and four counts of felony murder. He was convicted a few days later, sentenced to life in prison and a lifetime in his own personal hell.”[xxi]
Never mind the obscenity of a holiday that remembers only the tiny percentage of the casualties in U.S. wars that are people from the United States, and even then excludes the majority of them that are the result of suicide. These lives are not “given.” They are taken. And mysticizing them as sacred “sacrifices” to some noble cause or a god of war or a holy flag that thou must stand and never kneel in protest before is unjustified.
President John F. Kennedy wrote in a letter to a friend something he would never have put in a speech: “War will exist until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.” I would tweak that statement a little. It should include those refusing to participate in a war whether or not they are granted the status of “conscientious objector.” And it should include those resisting the war nonviolently outside of the military as well, including by traveling to the expected sites of bombings in order to serve as “human shields.”
When President Barack Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize and remarked that other people were more deserving, I immediately thought of several. Some of the bravest people I know or have heard of have refused to take part in current wars or tried to place their bodies into the gears of the war machine. If they enjoyed the same reputation and prestige as the warriors, we would all hear about them. If they were so honored, some of them would be permitted to speak through our television stations and newspapers.
Let’s consider “in service to freedom.”
We’re often told that wars are fought for “freedom.” But when a wealthy nation fights a war against a poor (if often resource-rich) nation halfway around the globe, among the goals is not actually to prevent that poor nation from taking over the wealthy one, after which it might restrict people’s rights and liberties. The fears used to build support for the wars don’t involve such an incredible scenario at all; rather the threat is depicted as one to safety, not liberty.
In close proportion to levels of military spending, liberties are restricted in the name of war — even while wars may simultaneously be waged in the name of liberty. We try to resist the erosion of liberties, the warrantless surveillance, the drones in the skies, the lawless imprisonment, the torture, the assassinations, the denial of a lawyer, the denial of access to information on the government, etc. But these are symptoms. The disease is war and the preparation for war.
It is the idea of the enemy that allows government secrecy.
The nature of war, as fought between valued and devalued people, facilitates the erosion of liberties in another way, in addition to the fear for safety. That is, it allows liberties to first be taken away from devalued people. But the programs developed to accomplish that are later predictably expanded to include valued people as well.
Militarism erodes not just particular rights but the very basis of self-governance. It privatizes public goods, it corrupts public servants, it creates momentum for war by making people’s careers dependent on it.
One way in which war erodes public trust and morals is by its predictable generation of public lies.
Also eroded, of course, is the very idea of the rule of law — replaced with the practice of might-makes-right.
And, of course, as we have seen above, the nation waging the most wars is not succeeding in generating the most freedom, not even close. War is militarizing police forces, encouraging racism and bigotry, and restricting rights to speech and assembly, while making more and more government activity secret.
While wars fail to increase freedom, they also fail to increase safety. In fact, they endanger. There are more effective tools than war for protection, and war generates hostility. The past 17 years of war against terrorism has predictably increased terrorism and generated anti-U.S. hate groups on a scale that nations not bombing several countries at once cannot even begin to dream of.
In arming, many factors must be considered: weapon-related accidents, malicious testing on human beings, theft, sales to allies who become enemies, and the distraction from efforts to reduce the causes of terrorism and war must all be taken into account. So, of course, must the tendency to use weapons once you have them. And a nation’s stockpiling of weapons for war puts pressure on other nations to do the same. Even a nation that intends to fight only in defense, may understand “defense” to be the ability to retaliate against other nations. This makes it necessary to create the weaponry and strategies for aggressive war. When you put a lot of people to work planning something, when that project is in fact your largest public investment and proudest cause, it can be difficult to keep those people from finding opportunities to execute their plans
While the best defense in many sports may be a good offense, an offense in war is not defensive, not when it generates hatred, resentment, and blowback, not when the alternative is no war at all. Through the course of the so-called global war on terrorism, terrorism has been on the rise. This was predictable and predicted. The wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abuses of prisoners during them, became major recruiting tools for anti-U.S. terrorism. In 2006, U.S. intelligence agencies produced a National Intelligence Estimate that reached just that conclusion.
We can either eliminate all nuclear weapons or we can watch them proliferate. There’s no middle way. We can either have no nuclear weapons states, or we can have many. As long as some states have nuclear weapons others will desire them, and the more that have them the more easily they will spread to others still. If nuclear weapons continue to exist, there will very likely be a nuclear catastrophe, and the more the weapons have proliferated, the sooner it will come. Hundreds of incidents have nearly destroyed our world through accident, confusion, misunderstanding, and extremely irrational machismo. And possessing nuclear weapons does absolutely nothing to keep us safe, so that there is really no trade-off involved in eliminating them. They do not deter terrorist attacks by non-state actors in any way. Nor do they add an iota to a military’s ability to deter nations from attacking, given the United States’ ability to destroy anything anywhere at any time with non-nuclear weapons. The United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China have all lost wars against non-nuclear powers while possessing nukes.
What about “our country seems so divided”?
Does it really? The primary thing the U.S. government does is wage wars and prepare for more wars. A majority of federal discretionary spending is dumped into that cause year after year with almost no debate. Congress members are elected without ever having commented on the general shape of the budget or on foreign policy in any way whatsoever. The United States is engaged in wars in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and — on a smaller scale — in dozens of other nations, and is dealing weapons to almost three quarters of the world’s dictatorships plus most of its “democracies,” with hardly a peep out of a Congress that has yet to ever end a war. If this is being divided, I’d hate to see what being united looks like.
In 1995-96 and 2003-04 pollsters surveyed people in over 20 countries on how they ranked their countries in general and in various areas of accomplishment. Both in terms of general pride in the United States and in terms of various specifics, the people of the United States ranked second in the earlier study and first in the later one in level of national pride.[xxii]
On some points, there is a sharp divide between two parts of the U.S. public, with some U.S. residents having more in common with other nations’ publics than with the U.S. right wing. On some of the most important questions, however, there is less division, and beliefs that would be extreme elsewhere are large-majority views in the United States. Among the latter, is the U.S. belief in national exceptionalism (even among those who haven’t heard of the term). In 2010, 80 percent of those polled by Gallup in the United States said the United States had a unique character that made it the greatest country in the world. A 2013 survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that 49 percent had not heard of American Exceptionalism. But 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the United States is “unique and unlike any other nation.”
Why all the lies in my in-box every Memorial Day?
We learn a lot about the real motives for wars when whistleblowers leak the minutes of secret meetings, or when congressional committees publish the records of hearings decades later. War planners write books. They make movies. They face investigations. Eventually the beans tend to get spilled. But I have never ever, not even once, heard of a private meeting in which top war makers discussed the need to keep a war going in order to benefit the soldiers fighting in it.
The reason this is remarkable is that you almost never hear a war planner speak in public about the reasons for keeping a war going without claiming that it must be done for the troops, to support the troops, in order not to let the troops down, or so that those troops already dead will not have died in vain. Of course, if they died in an illegal, immoral, destructive action, or simply a hopeless war that must be lost sooner or later, it’s unclear how piling on more corpses will honor their memories. But this is not about logic.
The idea is that the men and women risking their lives, supposedly on our behalf, should always have our support — even if we view what they’re doing as mass murder. Peace activists, in contrast to war planners, say the very same thing about this in private that they say in public: we want to support those troops by not giving them illegal orders, not coercing them to commit atrocities, not sending them away from their families to risk their lives and bodies and mental well-being.
War makers’ private discussions about whether and why to keep a war going deal with all kinds of cynical motivations. They only touch on the topic of troops when considering how many of them there are or how long their contracts can be extended before they start killing their commanders. In public, it’s a very different story, one often told with smartly uniformed troops positioned as a backdrop. The wars are all about the troops and in fact must be extended for the benefit of the troops. Anything else would offend and disappoint the troops who have devoted themselves to the war.
U.S. wars employ more contractors and mercenaries now than troops. When mercenaries are killed and their bodies publicly displayed, the U.S. military will gladly destroy a city in retaliation, as in Fallujah, Iraq. But war propagandists never mention the contractors or the mercenaries. It’s always the troops, the ones doing the killing, and the ones drawn from the general population of just plain folks, even though the troops are being paid, just like the mercenaries only less.
The point of course is to prop up the piece of nonsense that says that opposing a war equals joining the other side of that war, so that wanting to be kinder to members of the U.S. military than the U.S. military is equals hating and attempting to destroy those people.
“Even though we don’t always agree with the war, we know that the men and women who are fighting are doing that. They chose to do that. They’re fighting for the country. And they are not the ones who chose the war.” Thus speaks somebody quoted by CBS Newsdescribing Memorial Day. You may oppose the war, but you MUST celebrate participation in the war because the people participating in the war are participating in the war. Q.E.D.
Also, you must support more and more and more wars, even though nations with greater freedoms fight fewer wars or no wars at all:
“We forget that freedom isn’t free. It must be paid for, and not just once. Again and again, Americans have stepped forward in a moment of crisis and put their lives on the line.” ‑Fox News.
While this Orwellian deception is stripping people in the United States of their rights in the name of Freedom, the greatest loss of life, limb, and liberty is happening abroad at the hands of the U.S. military. While Korea is seeking peace and unification and disarmament, the U.S. government is doing everything it can to sabotage that process and restore the stock prices of weapons companies to what they were before the specter of peace appeared.
The people of South Korea are not asked for their opinions or votes before their property is taken and turned into bases for the U.S. military. The U.S. efforts to thwart popular will at every turn in Korea is not democracy promotion. The devastation imposed on Jeju Island with new construction for the U.S. Navy has come despite the courageous and concerted nonviolent resistance of the people.
Further south on the islands of Okinawa sits an untapped opportunity to facilitate peace in Korea and simultaneously spread democracy. This could be done by honoring the overwhelming opinion of the people of Okinawa, bringing every member of the U.S. military stationed there home, retraining each of those people for peaceful employment, and devising creative schemes for what to do with all the left-over money following that conversion.
The Ryukyu islands, colonized by Japan as Okinawa, in turn colonized by the United States as a client state in a global empire, are home to indigenous peoples whose lives have been severely harmed by the theft of their land, by the introduction of militarism to a peaceful society, by the crashing of planes, by the raping of girls, by the environmental destruction of base construction, by the racist discrimination against them and the denial of their rights. While Kosovo has the right to secede, Crimea must not, and Okinawa never. For decades the U.S. government has “colluded” in “hacking” Okinawan elections and reversing Okinawan decisions to impose military bases on people who in many cases risk their lives repeatedly to resist such tyranny.
This is a story repeated all over the earth, as the United States imposes mammoth military bases on dozens of non-indispensible nations on every inhabited continent. None of the bases are glorious. None of them are heroic. None of them are worth celebrating with flags or parades or picnics or the slathering of ketchup and mustard on roasted dead animal flesh. Let’s do better. Let’s celebrate holidays that promote things we truly value, including peace.
[i] “The Legatum Prosperity Index 2017,” Legatum Institute, https://lif.blob.core.windows.net/lif/docs/default-source/default-library/pdf55f152ff15736886a8b2ff00001f4427.pdf?sfvrsn=0.
[ii] Ian Vasquez and Tanja Porcnik, “The Human Freedom Index 2017,” the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/human-freedom-index-files/2017-human-freedom-index-2.pdf.
[iii] “2017 World Freedom Index,” http://www.worldfreedomindex.com.
[iv] “Civil Liberties,” World Audit, http://www.worldaudit.org/civillibs.htm.
[v] “Ranking 2017,” Reporters Without Borders, https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2017.
[vi] “2018 Index of Economic Freedom,” The Heritage Foundation, https://www.heritage.org/index/country/unitedstates.
[vii] “World Index of Moral Freedom,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Index_of_Moral_Freedom.
[viii] “Democracy Index,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index.
[ix] “Polity Data Series,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polity_data_series.
[x] —Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Yes, U.S. Locks People Up at a Higher Rate Than Any Other Country,” Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/07/yes-u-s-locks-people-up-at-a-higher-rate-than-any-other-country/?utm_term=.5ea21d773e21 (July 7, 2015).
—”List of Countries by Incarceration Rate,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate.
[xi] “List of Countries by GDP (Nominal),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal).
[xii] “List of Countries by GDP (PPP),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP).
[xiii] “List of Countries by GDP (Nominal Per Capita),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_ percent28nominal percent29_per_capita.
[xiv] “List of Countries by the Number of Billionaires,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_the_number_of_billionaires.
[xv] —Elise Gould and Hilary Wething, “U.S. Poverty Rates Higher, Safety Net Weaker Than in Peer Countries,” Economic Policy Institute, http://www.epi.org/publication/ib339-us-poverty-higher-safety-net-weaker (July 24, 2012).
—Max Fisher, “Map: How 35 Countries Compare on Child Poverty (the U.S. Is Ranked 34th),: Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/04/15/map-how-35-countries-compare-on-child-poverty-the-u-s-is-ranked-34th/?utm_term=.a3b0797b716e (April 15, 2013).
—Christopher Ingraham, “Child Poverty in the U.S. Is Among the Worst in the Developed World,” Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/10/29/child-poverty-in-the-u-s-is-among-the-worst-in-the-developed-world/?utm_term=.217ecc2c90ee (October 29, 2014).
—”Measuring Child Poverty,” UNICEF, https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc10_eng.pdf (May 2012).
[xvi] “The World Fact Book: Country Comparison: Distribution of Family Income: GINI Index,” Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2172rank.html.
[xvii] “GINI Index (World Bank Estimate) Country Ranking,” Index Mundi, https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SI.POV.GINI/rankings.
[xviii] “List of Countries by Distribution of Wealth,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_distribution_of_wealth.
[xix] Philip Alston, “Extreme Poverty in America: Read the UN Special Monitor’s Report,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/15/extreme-poverty-america-un-special-monitor-report (December 15, 2017).
[xx] —Elise Gould, “U.S. Lags Behind Peer Countries in Mobility,” Economic Policy Institute, http://www.epi.org/publication/usa-lags-peer-countries-mobility (October 10, 2012).
—Ben Lorica, “Prosperity and Upward Mobility: U.S. and Other Countries,” Verisi Data Studio, http://www.verisi.com/resources/prosperity-upward-mobility.htm (November 2011).
—Steven Perlberg, “These Two Ladders Perfectly Illustrate the Evolution of Income Mobility and Inequality in America,” Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/harvard-upward-mobility-study-2014-1 (January 23, 2014).
—Katie Sanders, “Is it Easier to Obtain the American Dream in Europe,” Politifact, http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2013/dec/19/steven-rattner/it-easier-obtain-american-dream-europe (December 19, 2013).
[xxi] Jorge Mariscal, “The Poverty Draft: Do military recruiters disproportionately target communities of color and the poor?”, Sojourners, June 2007. Accessed October 7, 2010, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0706&article=070628.
[xxii] Tom W. Smith and Seokho Kim, “National Pride in Cross-national and Temporal Perspective, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 18 (Spring, 2006), pp. 127-136, http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/06/060301.nationalpride.pdf.