Comfort, Affluence, and The American Way of Life; A Memorial Day Reflection

One of my favorite quotes is from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Haunted,

Onstage, the Missing Link says every breath you take is because something has died. Something or someone lived and died so you could have this life. This mountain of dead, they lift you into daylight. The Missing Link, he says, Will the effort and energy and momentum of their lives. . . How will it find you? How will you enjoy their gift? Leather shoes and fried chicken and dead soldiers are only a tragedy if you waste their gift sitting in front of the television. Or stuck in traffic. Or stranded at some airport. How will you show all the creatures of history? says the Missing Link. How will you show their birth and work and death were worthwhile? [1]

This Monday Americans will celebrate Memorial Day, which is a day for honoring those Americans who have died in military service. Memorial Day is also the traditional start of the summer, marked by barbeques, parties, domestic light beer, and the traditional American tube-steak (hotdogs). We as Americans sometimes lose sight of what Memorial Day is, and what the lives we enjoy cost.

Someone lived and died so you could have this life. Dead soldiers are only a tragedy if you waste their gift sitting in front of the television. [2]

There’s plenty of people talking about and writing about freedom today. You can find them all over the web, plenty of meme’s and “share this” pictures proclaiming “Freedom isn’t free”, which it isn’t, but I’m not going to talk about freedom today. I’m going to talk about something a little different: comfort, affluence, and the cost of the American way of life.

Today, most of you have the day off from work. You’ll be heading down to the beach, to a friend’s house for a barbeque, or just hanging out at home. I’d be willing to bet none of you are worrying about a foreign invasion, a violent revolution, or nuclear holocaust. That would be fairly ridiculous, we’re America after all, nobody’s going to invade us, we’re safe from those sorts of things. This is true, but it wasn’t always this way and it won’t always be this way. America is a global superpower. America is the most powerful cohesive political unit the world has ever seen, in both absolute and relative terms. We have the option of ordering the international system in such a way that suits us. No other nation could hope to challenge us. Due to this dominance, American citizens live comfortable lives with little to no fear of external threats.

We live in a society where a citizen can choose to completely ignore the political process, the world around them, and live a relatively comfortable worry free life. Nothing horrifying is going to happen, the political system will keep on chugging without them, keeping them safe, happy and relatively wealthy. The poor in modern America face obesity, not starvation. Being below the poverty line in America can mean having a car, a cellphone, and air-conditioning, things considered luxuries only a generation ago, and things the majority of the world only dreams of. One of the biggest healthcare problems we face as a nation is not epidemics or incurable diseases, it’s that our citizens are living too long and spending too long in retirement. We have the wonderful problem of medication non-compliance, where we have taken diseases like diabetes and HIV, which were death sentences, and made them easily manageable conditions, we just need to find ways to get people to actually take their medicine. Compared to how man lived only 200 years ago, Americans today live in something close to utopia.

Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities. [3]

It’s easy sometimes to forget that this dominance, this wealth, this political system, this lifestyle, was not just the natural progress of history or an accident of fate. It was bought with the blood of our countrymen over the course of 200 years. Since America’s founding, there have been 1,194,480 deaths of servicemen and woman during times of war [4]. There are memorials and graveyards in every corner of the earth devoted to American soldiers who died on behalf of their nation. The life you live today, was made possible by 200 years of violence waged on your behalf.

“We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” [5]

We’ve forgotten in this country that the line between our comfortable, civilized lives, and chaos is a thin one, and along that line stands men and woman in uniform, “ready to visit violence on those who would harm us”. This is aggravated by the fact that we as a nation went from having more than 12,000,000 men and woman in uniform, representing almost 9% of the total US population in 1945, to 2007 when we had about 1,300,000 men and woman in uniform, or 0.5% of the total population [6]. We went from a time when everyone knew someone who was in the military, to a time when there are entire segments of the population who don’t know anyone personally who’s in the military.

[7]

There has been a growing civilian-military divide between this nation and its armed services. The images above show a juxtaposition of military vs. civilian life. Nothing better shows this divide than looking at the American college student. There is a vast disparity of what we expect of our young people in this country. We ask some 18 year olds to go halfway across the world and fight on our behalf. We ask them to push themselves physically and mentally to the limits of human endurance. We ask some of them to die for us. Meanwhile other 18 year olds, like those at Brown University can’t even be asked to confront ideas that go against their “closely held beliefs”, and are provided “safe spaces” equipped with “playdoh, bubbles, and puppies” in order to recover from exposure to such ideas [8]. Other students at Michigan University found American Sniper a movie portraying the war their countrymen are fighting in, as too offensive, and replaced it with a screening of Paddington the Bear [9]. This disparity is unsustainable, and represents how out of touch large segments of society are with the way the world really looks.

So this Memorial Day, enjoy your BBQ and beers. But spend a minute to recognize, that the life you live today is not just the natural course of history. There are people who get up every day with the singular goal of ensuring that your world continues to spin, and many men and woman died in pursuit of that goal. Watch the first 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Watch Restrepro, Band of Brothers, The Pacific or read War, and contemplate the cost of the life you live.

Remember those who died in service to our way of life this Memorial Day, and do them the honor of living your life to the fullest, and doing something with it. Don’t waste their gift by sitting in front of your TV watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians and CSI re-runs. Don’t waste their gift by living and unexamined, unfulfilled life. You are living in the wealthiest nation on earth at the pinnacle of human civilization. Do something with it, and never forget those who died to give you the life you have today.

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph [10]

God Bless the American Armed Forces, and God Bless America.

[11]



[1] From Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk, excerpt from “Evolution, A Poem About the Missing Link“. Amazon Link.
[2] Paraphrase of [1]
[3] From More Maxims of Mark, attributed to Mark Twain.
[4] http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004615.html
[5] Mistakenly attributed to George Orwell, paraphrased by a journalist writing about Orwell’s comments on Kipling. More info from WikiQuote here.
[6] http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004598.html
[7] Created by justwarthings.tumblr.com
[8] Referring to a recent incident involving a debate a Brown University about the existance of a rape culture in modern America. Full story from NYT.
[9] Referring to a recent incident at the University of Michigan where a screening of American Sniper was canceled after student protest. Full story from Washington Post.
[10] Excerpt from a speech delivered by President Theodore Roosevelt entitled The Strenuous Life. Full Text.
[11] Photo by me of my grandfather’s boots from Vietnam. Originals can be found at my online gallery.

The views expressed by me on this blog, my website, and any social media with my name attached are mine, and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of my University, my associates, employers, or other organizations I represent. For questions or comments, comment below or contact brendan@illis.net

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