Memorial Day by Hal O’Leary

Memorial Day by Hal O’Leary

MEMORIAL DAY by Hal O’Leary, American fighter of World War II.

Memorial Day by Hal O'Leary

Members of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment prepare to fire an 81mm mortar during the battle for Italy. US Army

It needs to be said, and I say it without apology of any kind, because I’ve been there:  I fear that what we call Memorial Day may be an insult to those we claim to honor.  I’m bothered by the phrase, “We honor our fallen heroes.”  I have to question just how many of them were indeed heroes.  Many of them may have had less than auspicious military records.  My Lai and Abu Ghraib come to mind.  Then, too, the truly honorable are well beyond our patriotic clichés. Life to them is a might-have-been.  Perhaps, what we had better honor is our commitment to the fallen that we will strive to bring about a world in which war is no longer thinkable.  Only then might we entertain the thought that they may not have died in vain, for in the face of known lies by the leaders themselves that led us into war, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the fallen could have died to preserve our rights and/or freedoms, when those very rights and freedoms once guaranteed by the constitution are being stripped away by those very same leaders. I might even go so far as to suggest an ulterior motive for our observance of Memorial Day.  Could it be that, since the fallen are beyond our voices, the true focus of our lamentations must be upon us, ourselves?  Might we be the real beneficiaries?   We then must question just what the benefits might be.  There can be no doubt that grief over the loss of a  loved one in war is far greater than all other losses because it is the most difficult to reconcile.  Old age, disease and even accidents are more easily dealt with.  It is when the cause of our loss is something that need not and should not have ever taken place that grief becomes almost intolerable.  Therefore, it behooves us somehow to justify our loss.  Contrary to some beliefs, wars need not and should not happen.  The peoples of the world do not want war, nor do they benefit from war.  It has always been thus: the leaders, backed by a greedy consortium of wealthy elitists in an effort to solidify their power, have persuaded the people that it is in their interest to fight and kill.  The strategy most often employed is to instill in the public a real or imagined fear of a threat to their lives or well-being.  Deceit and outright lies are employed in an effort to bring about our desired compliance.  This, then, becomes the unfounded justification for our unspeakable loss. Our own grief becomes then the real reason we say on this day with pride, “We honor our fallen heroes.”  But, before I explain why, let me share with a true experience I had during that totally unnecessary and disastrous fiasco in Vietnam.  I can call it a fiasco now since most informed people realize at last that the perpetrators, lying to the public, knew that we could and would never win.  I know this because my friend Lou Sarris was the State Department’s head analyst in Vietnam for thirteen years, sending back true reports of the situation there in sharp contrast to the glowing reports sent by the military. The following excerpt is from an article “The MouseThat Roared” by John Prados, National Security Archive Fellow.  Prados notes about Lou Sarris: “Using the military’s own data, he found adverse trends in the war situation that were simply not reflected in the steady stream of claims to progress. Sarris found that National Liberation Front attacks were up since July, while reports of prisoners taken, defectors, and weapons captured were all down. These results were embodied in the paper RFE-90, “Statistics on the War Effort in South Vietnam Show Unfavorable Trends,” of October 22, 1963. Louis Sarris briefed his paper to Roger Hilsman, and the document circulated throughout government, as was normal with INR (Bureau of Intelligence and Research) products. A tempest then erupted. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) compiled an extensive complaint about the INR paper, listing items that the military were experts on and civilian analysts supposedly inexperienced, and forwarded this critique to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, arguing that the South Vietnamese offensive effort had not reached its optimum level but “is on the way thereto”.  McNamara forwarded the JCS memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk with a cover note that said: ‘Attached is the State memo re: the war in Vietnam.  Below it are the comments of the Chiefs.  If you were to tell me that it is not the policy of the State Department to issue military appraisals without seeking the views of the Defense Department, the matter will die.’ Secretary Rusk called both Thomas Hughes and Louis Sarris into his office.  After telling them how much he appreciated INR’s work, he asked what he ought to do about the Pentagon diatribe.  Sarris believes that McNamara’s implicit threat was to take the matter to the president and that he meant it.  Sarris sees Rusk’s motives as complex:  he held the military in great respect from his own experience in World War II, but he also wanted an opportunity to get at Roger Hilsman, whose direct access to the Kennedys had troubled him.  Hughes recalls that at a certain point Rusk asked Sarris to leave the room and that, afterwards the INR director himself told Rusk that he had not become bureau chief to be told what to report.  Rusk acknowledged that but asked if f he could mollify McNamara anyway.  Hughes also sees Rusk’s motives as complicated; on the one hand, the secretary wanted to defer to the people on the spot (the military); on the other hand, he was a fierce defender of INR’s independence.” Had my friend Lou been listened to, more than 50,000 of our loved ones who died in that fiasco might have been spared. While we are on the subject of that war, I had another friend.  We’ll call him Joe, a fellow veteran of WWII.  Joe lost a son in Vietnam, and it has been my experience that when the unthinkable happens, either the father becomes  extremely bitter, or he becomes a super patriot.  In this case, my friend Joe became the latter.  He and his distraught wife launched a national program in support of the war.  One phase of the program was meant to alert an increasingly distrustful public to the tremendous cost of preserving our freedoms, or so he thought.  To this end, his wife had researched the cost of all of America’s wars and claimed to account for every penny spent.  Joe phoned me, as an actor, to ask if I would consider making an audio recording of her article to be distributed nationally.  I said that I would like to read it first before committing myself, so I picked up a copy at his office and went home to study it.  After reading it, I had to call my friend and regretfully decline.  He was, to say the least, surprised and a bit upset.  He asked me immediately if I had some trouble with his wife’s figures.  I told him that I had no trouble with them at all.  He then bluntly asked what my reason for refusal could possibly be. I told him that, while his wife’s figures were alarming, I had no reason to doubt their accuracy. The question which the article raised in my mind and gave me considerable concern was what had happened to all that money. Where had it gone?  This confused Joe a little; I went on to explain that my fear was that it had wound up in the pockets of those who profited most from the war, and that it was not inconceivable that a few may even have been instrumental in bringing the war about with just that end in mind.  I said that while his wife was calling on ‘we the people’ to sacrifice, there was no such call for those who profit from such a war.  Sadly, our friendship ended on that bitter note. The question, now, is how these experiences influenced my feelings about Memorial Day.  I fear that in my friend Joe’s case and in the cases of so many others, the need somehow to justify the loss of a loved one by pretending that it was an honorable death in pursuit of an honorable mission underlies the real purpose of this day.  I see it as an attempt to mitigate or at least alleviate to some degree the guilt and shame we must subconsciously feel in proudly having sent that loved one off to be killed in a specious war that we fully supported.  This becomes doubly difficult when it comes to wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that were entered into on the basis of deceit and outright lies.  Add to this the shame and guilt we should feel for the literally millions of innocent citizens, callously referred to as “collateral damage,” killed and maimed by the military we choose to honor. Should we not honor them as well? There is no way to justify our support of an illegal and unjustifiable war.  So profitable has war become for the consortium of powerful elitists, that they have now adopted a political strategy that goes back, at least,to the fifteenth century and Machiavelli.  It’s called “perpetual war.”  More recently, this strategy employed to bring about a global hegemony has been adopted by the neocon students of Leo Strauss, a former professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Chicago who, as a follower of the teachings of Machiavelli and more recently Leon Trotsky, proclaims that a state of constant fear maintained by perpetual war is the best if not the only strategy to assure control over the populace.  So long as they can rely on our perpetual (albeit false) sense of patriotism to assuage the subconscious guilt and shame we must endure in having supported their insane war, we can rest assured that the wars will continue in perpetuity.  Is it possible that a reversal in this trend can be brought about?  Our only hope may lie in the possibility that enough of us can find the courage to acknowledge the truth of another misused phrase, “Our country right or wrong,” which should be followed with, “If right, to be kept right, but if wrong, to be set right.” May we, on this Memorial Day, honor all who have fallen in the barbaric indecency of war, and vow to hold accountable all who sociopathically bring it about.

View Comments (2)
  • Guest

    Grizzly said: Your right! Since I want to be a good Christian, and all capitalists are sinners, I repent. I laid off all my workers, put my equipment into the street with a “free” sign. I closed my doors, sold my building and gave away the proceeds.

    If every dirty capitalist did the same then the world would be a better place.

    Unemployed, starving and homeless.

    Or perhaps you have misjudged capitalism. Maybe some capitalists are greedy and some want to build a better world.

  • Guest

    Hal O’Leary answered:

    Dear Grizzly,

    With the assumption that I am addressing a tool manufacturing corporation that is now considered to be a person by our esteemed Supreme Court, I have to inform you that you have missed the entire point of my article. If one gun owner (perhaps yourself) were to turn in his gun, it would not solve the gun problem any more than your shutting down your business will solve the problems created by Capitalism. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that all gun owners or all business owners will capitulate; therefore, it seems that your solution is that we must accept the murder rate and the misery created by guns and Capitalism in return for the right of the Capitalist to exploit and waste the earth’s resources for his private material gain. In case you missed the quote by Adam Smith at the end of column, let me repeat it, since it seems to reflect the prevailing Capitalist mentality:

    “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

    –Adam Smith

    What lonely lives you capitalists must lead for having forsaken the age and sage old concept of brotherhood. To suggest, as I believe you do, that by providing employment for your workers at the lowest possible wage you can pay to retain them, at the same time denying them a union voice which relegates them to nothing more than a commodity listed on the debit side of your ledger, you are somehow serving humanity, is the height of both ignorance and arrogance.

    I would further suggest that in your desire to better humanity, you might improve your understanding of the English language by learning the difference between those two very difficult words, “Your” and the contraction “You’re.”

    Yours for a more enlightened world.


Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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