Thoughts for Memorial Day
The Old Testament in 2 Kings 21 tells us of an ancient king, Manasseh, who turned the people of his kingdom from trusting God to worshipping the idol, Baal. Manasseh reversed most of the good changes that had taken place during the reign of his predecessor, Hezekiah. He built an altar to Baal and was so wicked that he actually sacrificed his own son to that idol.
Memorial Day reminds me of Manasseh. On this holiday many Americans act as if they are his spiritual descendants. Only they have exchanged the idol, Baal, for an even larger and more contemporary false deity, the god of nationalism. Americans are not the only ones guilty of this practice. In every country there are citizens who idolize their nation.
Manasseh had to tell a lot of lies to deceive his people. He claimed that Baal was the true god, and his sinful behavior indicates that he believed Baal was a god to whom human lives should be sacrificed. Verse 16 of chapter 21 says that Manasseh shed so much innocent blood that "he filled Jerusalem from end to end" (NIV).
Those who follow Manasseh's example today are as quick to shed the truth as he was to shed blood. On Memorial Day, especially, we can hear them twist and destroy the truth as they commemorate sacrificing their sons to the god of nationalism in the past and as they recruit more for similar sacrifices in the future.
They claim that those who died did so in defense of their country. Perhaps, but not likely. The United States mainland hasn't seen a credible attack in over a century. At least in recent conflicts they probably died while protecting the business interests of some large corporation or while nursing the macho image of a trigger-happy president.
Memorial Day orators claim that military personnel are protecting the citizens of this country. In fact the opposite is true. Large civilian populations who would be devastated in any war today is one of the main reasons that the United States and the Soviet Union have shown restraint in their aggression toward each other. United States citizens are actually the hostages that protect American military forces.
We hear loud proclamations that the soldier who was killed did not die in vain, that his life was not wasted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the portion of his life that he lived was not wasted. But the part that he did not get to live, because of his premature death in battle, was most certainly wasted. The approximately 56,000 young Americans who died in Vietnam lost, on the average, 40 to 50 years from each of their lives. That preventable war cost our nation well over two million, "life-years" of teaching , scientific, artistic, and whatever other abilities can be found in 56,000 young men. Of course the cost to Vietnam was much greater.
Our government would like us to believe that our young people are as disposable as the plastic bags their bodies often come home from war in. It's another one of those lies which control our lives when we give a nation our highest allegiance.
We have to remember that the life of each young person, regardless of nationality, is a non-renewable natural resource and deserves all the protection we can give it.
I'm afraid that our willingness to sacrifice people for a political cause is proof that the United states has embraced the idolatrous wickedness of Manasseh. The malicious spirit that controlled him is alive and well in our country's actions toward Central American and Vietnam, and in our dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to end the war with Japan, as many would like to believe, but because the war was about to end, and then we would have no excuse to use them.
Instead of commemorating such destructive misbehavior each Memorial Day we need to do the only truly heroic thing which can be done with war. Get rid of it! Although it is not likely that we will soon see a time free from wars or the threat of war, much has happened in recent months with regard to international relations to give the human race hope.
In the book How to Stop a War, James F. Dunnigan and William Martel have an interesting chapter entitled "Wars That Never Happened." They point out that numerous potential conflicts between nations have been avoided or postponed by relatively small doses of caution, patience, and diplomatic discretion.
For example, in 1980 violent conflict was a real possibility between Poland and the Soviet Union. The growing Solidarity movement threatened Soviet control of Poland. The Soviets had not hesitated to use troops against recalcitrant neighboring countries before, and the Soviet Army was clearly militarily superior to Polish forces. But war would have wrecked economic havoc on Poland and perhaps on the Soviet Union also.
Some changes were allowed and compromises made with Polish workers, thereby avoiding what could have been a major war. Since then additional hopeful changes have occurred between those two nations, changes which might have been impossible if they had engaged in war a decade ago.
The same writers remind us that many of history's conflicts came very close to not happening. Numerous factors, including the demise of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires, significant increases in the destructiveness of military technology, plus the rather strong desire among many people to engage in combat, led to World War I. Other contributing factors were the acquisition of two French provinces by Germany and attempts by the French to regain their lost territory. If any one of the contributing factors had been missing, the first World War might not have occurred; it might have been postponed or been less destructive; perhaps it would not have led to the even more deadly Second World War.
Likewise the Vietnam War, as we know it, would never have occurred if the United States had simply refused to get involved in the Vietnamese civil war. It's likely that a little more caution, patience, and diplomatic discretion could have prevented some of the saddest and most destructive times in human history.
We can give those who died in previous wars the recognition they deserve and make certain that their deaths were not in vain; to do this we must agree that never again will we use violence against other countries instead of the better methods of resolving our differences that are always available. We waste the lives of former war victims and render their deaths useless by repeating the same human sacrifices in present and future wars.
Memorial Day is an appropriate time to renew our caution against being so devoted to a particular country that our allegiance requires us, like Manasseh, to make human sacrifices to it. Christians need to be motivated by a different spirit. The focus of most Memorial Day celebrations is misdirected. The true war heroes are not soldiers who died while trying to kill the enemy or those who praise and insist on continuing past idolatrous sacrifices. The true war heroes are pacifists, conflict-mediators, conscientious objectors to registration as well as to participation in military service, and those who pray and work for peace in other non-violent ways.
If you are one of that minority, let it be known that we are grateful. Although you may not receive any recognition this Memorial Day, it is highly probable that countless thousands, perhaps millions of people are alive today because of your efforts. You are, without a doubt, the true war heroes or heroines of this or any nation.
Published in the May 22, 1990 issue of Gospel Herald