#166: Reflections on Memorial Day

It is strange to have to look up the meaning of a central holiday of the country into which you have immigrated. I grew up in Socialist/Communist East Germany, and that was a criminal state, I did not care for its traditions. The Catholic Church dictated most of my holiday schedule – the Protestants varied from that a bit. When we became West Germany, some new holidays were added, but mainly Unification day (October 3) which replaced the dreadful National Holiday of the GDR (October 7).

Now, I am living in the United States, more specifically in Oregon, more specifically, in a rather liberal “blue” university town. I have to google Memorial Day because liberals, it seems, are not much into rituals celebrating the greatness of America. That typically suits me well – I am usually not in the business of committing acts of outrageous patriotism, but in times like these – Russia waging genocide against Ukrainians, China against Uighurs – some contrasts become too stark to ignore. And I understand the dangers of thoughtless jingoism, and would typically side with the cynics.

But sometimes this is a mistake, especially on Memorial Day. America is a great country, overall, and it occasionally needs to be reminded of that and should not hide its greatness. Part of its greatness is that you can criticize it (within the rather generous confines of the law) and that you are allowed not to care. This is something to be proud of.

Certainly, America hasn’t done everything right – neither domestically nor internationally. It failed in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. These international policy failures, however, were the result of a politics of trying to topple a tyranny and institute democracy – they were not principally imperial by design. The United States, of course, used imperial conquest to secure its current territory. But it withdrew from other territories it helped or attempted to liberate – the Philippines, Europe, and the aforementioned examples. There is talk about “American Empire”, but this is misleading. America is no longer in the business of conquering territory, it is typically in the business of creating alliances and protecting democracy, as simple-minded this may sound.

But is it simple-minded? Is there not something more cynical in play?

Typically, I welcome cynicism. It is necessary, and certainly, there is always a reason to look at things with heightened skepticism. Yet there is noting simple-minded about recognizing that without the United States, most of Europe would not be democratic. The US was key to liberating Europe from Nazism. The Soviets, initially allied with the Nazis, attacked Hitler only after being attacked themselves, and after helping to liberate Europe from Nazism, they introduced their own totalitarian system. It was a liberation only in part, followed by brutal submission. I know, I grew up under the Soviet System in East Germany – which was not even a real country but could best be described as a huge open-air prison system, a country that was so dysfunctional, cruel and unattractive that it prohibited its “citizens” (aka prisoners) from leaving by building a wall (and big fence) around it and shot people who tried to leave. In contrast, where the US liberated territory, the results were freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and even the ability to criticize the United States themselves. The occupation by the allied forces finally ended once the Soviet Union – the enemy of truth, freedom, democracy, decency, humanity and life – finally collapsed only to be resurrected in spirit by a certain Vladimir P.

You see, it is one thing to say “All war is bad.” Sure. “Everyone lies.” Sure. “Everyone has economic motives also.” Sure. But there is no equivalence between what the United States and its Allies have done since World War I and especially World War II, and that which the other side has done. NATO did attack Serbia, but only after Serbia attacked the former parts of Yugoslavia that wanted to leave the forced union.  Serbia waged war against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosova after they declared independence, and waged it with such brutality that the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica still lives in infamy. NATO came to the help of the newly independent republics and defended them against Serb imperial aggression. Still, the United States did not stay. The “West” did not conquer. Those states who eventually joined either NATO or the EU or both did so voluntarily.

Putin turns legitimate criticism of American and European foreign policy failures into a recipe for imperial politics not to defend but to destroy democracy, not to defend but attack other countries, not to liberate but conquer. As to China’s imperial practices, I can only say: Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Taiwan. Again, Taiwan is independent, Tibet should be independent, the destruction of traditional Mongolian culture needs to stop, and the genocide of Uighurs in Xinjiang needs to end. Again, Taiwan, Taiwan, Taiwan. Anyway.

Thus as a former “New Soviet person” (новый советский человек), I very much remember what the United States has done for me, for my people, for everyone wanting to live in freedom. It has not succeeded everywhere, but it tried, and will need to keep trying, but in smarter and better ways.

This is not a platitude. Freedom means something to people like me who did not have it growing up. The same holds true for democracy, liberal values and human rights. These are not trivial values; they matter. Without them, there cannot be justice, there cannot be social justice, there cannot be truth.

For this country to still be standing, to still serve as an inspiration to the world, countless of its best and brightest had chosen to serve, and many of them died and sacrificed their life and happiness for us so that we can live – whether we are American, German, French, Polish, or whoever else benefited from the United States helping to liberate us from Nazism and Socialism/Communism. And even where mistakes, sometimes tragic, sometimes even criminal ones, were made, let us hope that whatever we were trying to do will succeed in the end.

The lives that were sacrificed for our benefit, and for the safety of the United States, will not be forgotten. Let us honor those who have died in the service of freedom, democracy, human rights. They have inspired new freedom fighters around the world – even those whose tool is just a humble blog. Thank you.