Saturday, August 13, 2011

The (Purple) Heart of the Matter

HARBESON: The honor in war

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — I’ve been thinking a lot about war lately. This is partly due to the U.S. Postal Service’s government-granted monopoly on delivering first-class mail.

See, I recently discovered that the stamps with the odd shape I’ve been using for a while, and slapping on envelopes upside down, are commemorating the Purple Heart. As most of you probably already know, the Purple Heart is an attempt to make us all feel better about the damage done to individuals who were unlucky enough to get physically wounded or killed by our nation-state’s involvement in various wars.

I think it makes a lot of sense to try to do something to acknowledge what has happened to these people and to their families. What concerns me is how such actions may contribute to the continuation of war.

Medals and commemorations worry me because they create an atmosphere of automatic hero-worship over the critical analysis of a given war. Growing up with memorials and commemorations helps build the belief that American wars are always moral. This has led to acceptance of actions from politicians that go far beyond any sensible understanding of defense.

Awards such as the Purple Heart are used by the government to promote abstract moral ideas like honor, glory and service to the country. But little, if any, attention is given to the effectiveness of using violence as a means to resolve conflict.

Ever since the phrase “greatest generation” was embedded in our culture, I’ve always thought it was strange how we talk about our aging veterans as if they all voluntarily consented to join the military. The way our society pretends that all veterans were willing to go kill people in other countries on behalf of this country hides the real dissent that existed in all wars fought.

People were still being conscripted into military service as recently as 1972 and I wonder how some draftees or families feel about the Purple Heart. Does a medal ease the burn or does it further inflame the horrific injustice?

When the draft ended, advertising on behalf of military service began almost immediately. This happened at nearly the same time the government created a law banning some cigarette advertising because, well, those things can kill you.

As Americans, it’s relatively easy to go about our daily lives insulated from the horror of war. We’d have to work hard to even imagine what it would be like to have another country’s military camping on top of the Knobs, claiming to be there in the name of freedom while at the same time killing our children.

So is it possible to hand out medals to soldiers and their families without glorifying war at the same time?

I noticed that the town of Clarksville plans to spend money on “improvements and additions” to its war memorial and the low bid was more than $300,000. Governments spend a lot of money memorializing war; that in itself may be one clue that it might not be a good idea.

Maybe the best we can do is stop focusing war commemoration activities on our singular perspective. Perhaps every time war is memorialized, mourning should include all the human deaths that occurred, the soldiers and the involuntarily conscripted on both sides, as well as the civilians who live in the country where the battles occur who just happened to be born on the wrong piece of dirt at the wrong time in history.

People should certainly be able to empathize with the helplessness felt by families who live in the countries the United States invades. After all, despite the claim on having greater freedom to control the government Americans live under, it still seems impossible to get the politicians, Democratic or Republican, to stop playing their war games.

— Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson wonders if a day will come when a private entity creates a stamp commemorating the end of government.


  1. I'm more than a little disgusted that every event becomes an excuse for military worship. You can't have a holiday, community event, or a parade- even one with no "patriotic" foundation whatsoever- without the federal flag being displayed prominently (and saluted) and soldiers marching around looking to be thanked. Yeah, "Freedom isn't free", but you can't buy it with statism, either.

  2. You wrote, "But little, if any, attention is given to the effectiveness of using violence as a means to resolve conflict." - to which I have to reply that violence/war is not used to resolve conflicts, but to gain some advantage.
    The numerous Indian wars were not fought to quell some conflict between the Indians and the invading Americans, they were fought to gain land and resources, and destroy the inhabitants that claimed the land.

    The Mexican War wasn't to resolve a conflict, but to obtain more territory.

    The Spanish American war wasn't fought to free the Cubans or Filipinos from Spanish colonialism (even though that's what the government history books will tell you), it was fought to gain overseas territory.

    When the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy attacked and occupied the Philippines and killed and captured many U.S. troops, all they were attempting to do was the same thing that the U.S. had done 40 years earlier, i.e. use war to grab territory.

    War is used by the state for the same reasons that criminals use violence, to obtain other people's property and other people's compliance. War is murder and theft and all the medals, memorials, and other accolades exist for one purpose, and one purpose only: to insure that the State always has people who are willing to steal and kill on its behalf.