I was thinking about my annual Memorial Day post, reading Facebook memes and historical pieces on the origin of the holiday, when I ran across an advertisement. The video game, Call of Duty, was reminding fans and potential fans of its existence. A so-called first-person shooter, Call of Duty is challenging, engrossing, and fun. It also features the type of realism that pleases the cynics and worries society. Or should worry society, at any rate.
It only requires a brief period of listening to the comments of players engaged in virtual combat to understand the depth of hostility and hatred that the game seems to capture and focus. From the mouths of babes and adults alike come an endless stream of death threats and a stunning variety of racial abuse. The line between fun and violence glorification has clearly been breached for many in games like these, and many critics have questioned what harm first-person shooters can do to society. I have questioned it myself, as one who has played (and enjoyed) the franchise, and as one who has fired (and enjoyed firing) an assault rifle.
But I don’t believe the game is the cause, and I don’t believe that random interpersonal violence is the dangerous effect.
For far beyond the video games there lies a greater threat to our way of life. Woven into far too much of our Memorial Day celebrations is a thread celebrating the act of violence and the path to war. Paired with the fundamental human need to test ones self against a greater challenge, the celebration of war and violence uplifts the mindset that they are fundamentally good. Memorial Day is important in that we remember the sacrifice, by those who served and their families. Remembering and reaffirming a place of honor for these heroes is a critical and irreplaceable function of democracy.
The wars that made these sacrifices necessary are not critical and irreplaceable functions of democracy. The wars are the bitter tasting options of last resort for a democracy that is faced with desperate combat or extinction. Our own Revolution fits the appropriate definition; our Founding Fathers went to great lengths to avoid conflict before finally resolving that war was their last only option. In 1812, the British invaded; war was the last only option. In 1860, South Carolina started a rebellion; President Lincoln led a coalition which resolved that war was the last only option. In 1941, The Empire of Japan attacked the United States; World War II was our last only option.
Every other conflict in which our nation has participated has, to varying levels, been an over-extension; a reach to violence as the only solution. Some of these, made with international partners and/or at the behest of friends in need might have been justified, some have no justification. It is a function of world view and political leaning, I think, that allows for individual feelings on the level of justification. Notions of clear and present danger have been debated for as long as the phrase has been in use.
But violence should be a last result. In all of the world’s great religions, violence is a last result. In the teachings of Christ, an act of violence should be met by an invitation to the aggressor to do more violence. But we seem to seek it out, and worse, we seem to use the memories of heroes and victims alike to uplift acts of violence. And it needn’t be so. I have read more than a few obituaries of great men and women who were teachers, doctors, factory workers. Simple, everyday heroes whose memory might be used to uplift their professions, their way of life. The greatness of deed, the heroic sacrifice found in those killed in war, is that those brave men and women offered themselves not for the sake of war, but in defense of peaceful society. They gave their lives in defense of the mundane and irreplaceable everyday heroes.
They protected the weak. The defended the life of the democracy, and for that, it is they that are glorified rather than the war they were obliged to fight.
The distinction is important, because too many now seek the glory of war. The military in general, and special forces units in particular, have no use for individuals who seek the glory of war. They look for individuals willing to train for missions that will hopefully never come, to be ready to do the unthinkable. I am reminded of a story I read of a small boy who, with his mother shared an elevator with two Green Berets. The boy stood in awe of the two warriors, powerful and proud in their dress uniforms. As a young boy might, he managed one question, “Do you like war?” One answered, “Do you like cancer?”
But we have come to embrace war; combat being one of the few pursuits of which our nation is still clearly the best. We love our first-person shooters, we love the option to own weapons that few of us will ever fire (and even fewer of us will ever employ properly). And increasingly, we love the idea of armed revolution. A solid block (around 20% in various polls) believe that armed revolution may be “necessary” in the future. The display of the Confederate flag and other reminders of the Civil War are becoming less about heritage (as a proud American friend of mine from the South has explained), and more about what might happen if the democracy doesn’t do what some people want.
And those video games? Those video games feature a recurring theme of bombed out battlegrounds in American cities. A future that might be; a future of which they can fantasize. Recently, a radio “personality” tried to organize a “non-violent” march on Washington with the participants all carrying loaded weapons. They had no intention to violence as long as there were allowed to break the laws they believed wrong. It was a stroke of brilliance really; they would either expand their rights under the threat of violence, or be disarmed and become symbols of “tyranny”. Gandhi might feel as though his points on the nature of non-violent protest might have been missed. Tyranny has, of course, become a watchword among those who glorify violence.
“Tyranny” in the society yearning for war is a word that has lost most of its time-honored meaning. In 1776, tyranny meant that the King of England and his parliament could impose taxes unilaterally on the American colonists…the colonists having no voting representation in that parliament. In 1860, tyranny meant that a President who sounded willing to oppose slavery in the United States was cause to end the republic. The South had representation in the democracy, but it was clear about being in the minority. In the 21st Century, tyranny seems to be a curse word. It is like “fuck” really, thrown into conversations and writing to spice things up. It passes the test required of all curse words, in that the context always and fully defines the word. Think about it…
The context fully defines the word. And in a society yearning for violence, with blocks of individuals yearning for the “glory of war”, tyranny finds a new definition in every voice. Tyrants get the laws they want. In 4 1/2 years, President Obama has signed two pieces of legislation that were close to his proposals; the Lily Ledbetter Act which makes illegal the practice of paying women less than men for the same work, and his first budget (which, for reference, contained no restrictions on anyone’s rights). But tyranny has been redefined many times during Obama’s term by bloggers, writers, radio hosts, TV personalities, local politicians, and even national leaders (who know better).
To some, tyranny is now anything that Obama wants. To others, tyranny is now anything that Obama passes. To more than a few, tyranny is anything that the majority wants if they themselves are in the minority. (For instance, one may believe that photo voter ID requirements are tyranny, but be in favor of photo gun owners ID’s. Bet you didn’t think I would use that example…)
Tyranny might even be the President signing into law a bill written primarily by conservative strategists in 1994 as a substitute for the liberal idea that most of America wanted. A massive majority of Americans wanted action on health care (this 2003 poll found that a large majority of Americans wanted European-style universal health care), but the only bill that could get through Congress was one modeled on two decades of conservative thought on the problem. The “tyranny” of “Obama Care” won a majority of both the House and Senate twice.
Most explosively, tyranny might be the President proposing background checks on firearms purchases and bans on high capacity magazines and assault rifles. After all, well more than a super-majority of Americans want these provisions, provisions that don’t deny Americans their hunting rifles, shotguns, or handguns. But because of cries of tyranny, and because of legitimate fears of violence by the few against the many, Congress didn’t even vote on compromise legislation. We the people apparently must either have the capacity for armed revolt, or the revolt itself. So many countries around the world know or have recently known the “joy” of civil war, and here we Americans sit, with no glory for ourselves.
It makes me wonder if those remembering our fallen on Memorial Day have though about how important it was for those who didn’t fall to return home to the peace of America. How important was it for those who fell among the civil strife of Iraq and Afghanistan that their families not be subject to the same back in the United States? Yet I hear, mostly from a few local cowards (and national cowards like Ted Nugent) that “the military” would “join” in a rebellion because “they” understand how important it is for the cowards to defend their homes with long barreled semi-automatic weapons they can barely keep on target when aiming at a scrapped car. The danger to the democracy increases exponentially with each person that looks in a mirror and imagines Jefferson staring back.
There is a call to duty for all Americans, and it lies above and beyond the call to rebellion. It is a call, when remembering sacrifice, to remember to participate in the democracy for which the sacrifice was made. It is a call to fight, not with weapons but with conversation, commitment, and compromise, for the peace for which the fallen fought.
Some day, we will have a Memorial Day where all of the gallant fallen honored are heroes from a distant past, remembered with greatest feeling by great grand children rather than widows and orphans.
The Rational Middle is listening…