The National Memorial Day Concert from the Mall in Washington, D.C., is as much a part of the holiday as picnics, a day off, and flying the flag. This year's concert was the 20th annual, and if you missed it you missed something really special.
The annual concert has all the elements – patriotic songs, flags and uniforms, moving tributes, and most of all the memory of those who served and gave their lives. This year's concert also focused on those who, while they may have physically survived their combat, will never be the same. A case in point is José Pequeño, a Staff Sergeant in the New Hampshire National Guard who volunteered to deploy to Iraq. While on duty, he was calling in about a suicide bomber when an insurgent tossed a grenade into his Humvee. He lost the bottom two lobes of the left side of his brain, and doctors held out very little hope for his recovery. His mother Nellie and sister Elizabeth went immediately to his side and remain there over three years later. At the concert they were front-row center.
As with most severely brain-damaged patients, it was very hard to tell how much of the proceedings José was taking in. His body is stiff and contorted, his head twisted to the side, his mouth open. His mother and his sister were in physical contact with him the whole time and talking to him as he was praised and saluted, standing as a symbol of all the severely injured and disabled veterans, and particularly of those with traumatic brain injury (TBI).
I have no use for war as an instrument of foreign policy; at the same time I recognize that, from time to time, wars will be fought, young men will die, and those who live will be forever changed. I'm not a pacifist. I believe that we must defend ourselves, our freedom, and our way of life when it is attacked. Moral choices are not always easy choices, but they must be made.
At the same time, I believe that wars of aggression, wars of pre-emption, are profoundly immoral. In hindsight it's easy to say that we would have been justified had we attacked the Empire of Japan before December 7, 1941, but it's easy to be right in hindsight, and we still hold that particular pre-emptive strike as one of the most immoral acts of warfare ever – would it have been less immoral if we attacked them instead? I think not.
The war in Iraq, where Sgt. Pequeño gave what amounts to the last full measure of devotion to his country and his comrades – where his young life effectively ended – is a war born of a pre-emption that was questionable at best. Everyone but the very few diehard defenders of the war has admitted that the intelligence was flawed, to put the absolute best case forward – falsified is closer to the mark.
Until 1950 almost all the wars fought by the United States were fought to throw off the yoke of tyranny (the Revolution), to meet aggression (the War of 1812, WW 1, WW 2), or to preserve the values on which the country was founded (the Civil War). In every one of these cases we emerged from the horror of the wars stronger and sounder as a nation. We had done the right thing, respecting the cost but not stopped by it. There were a few aggressive wars in there – the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War – and we can't say that these left us better as a country. Since 1950 we have had a series of wars of questionable provenance – Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, and now Iraq.
When the moral compass of those in power wavers and becomes shaky, young men like José Pequeño pay the price. In the small town where I grew up there was a statue of a WW 1 Doughboy inscribed "Lest We Forget." If we do forget, then the sacrifices of the José Pequeños will be in vain, and that will be the end of us as a nation.