It’s hard to feel festive on a national holiday when your country’s going to pieces. On Memorial Day, we’re supposed to honor fallen members of the U.S. Armed Services. They died so we could be free, we tell ourselves, even as our freedom has crumbled around us since 9/11 and the beginning of our never-ending regime change wars across the globe.
Americans will continue dying, in conflicts ranging from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya to Niger. Americans will also continue killing, further ringing up a death toll in those conflicts that combined already runs well into millions of people since 2002.
As candidate Donald Trump once famously posed, what do we have to show for all of this? Nada. We didn’t even take Iraq’s oil. He ran as an antiwar candidate. That’s one of the reasons why I voted for him.
But Trump has proven no match for the real Deep State, the military-industrial-intelligence complex. He’s upped the ante in most of the conflicts he inherited from his neoliberalcon predecessors, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and now proposes further targets for our wrath: Venezuela, Iran or perhaps North Korea, if President Trump and Chairman Kim should fall out of love.
I couldn’t help pondering this dim state of world affairs while watching the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 on Fox Sports this past Sunday afternoon. I’m a motor sports fanatic, and I traditionally spend my Memorial Day Sunday watching the Indy 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Formula 1 grand prix from Monaco in succession, which is roughly nine hours of motor sports.
At the American events, one expects some patriotic displays before the start of the race, perhaps a military jet flyover, followed by hundred of miles of exhilarating circle-track racing. But several seasons ago, NASCAR determined that the patriotic displays should last the entire length of the 400-lap race, and began placing the names of fallen soldiers across the tops of the windshields of the 40 cars in the event, calling it “600 Miles of Remembrance”.
I watched as the drivers went round and round and round Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of the sport’s most iconic tracks. The race commentary was periodically interrupted by short stories about family members of the fallen meeting with NASCAR stars. The commentators did a pretty good job of squeezing all the names in, but after 400 laps, it was all a blur.
As twilight descended, Martin Truex Jr. took the checkered flag and his second Coca-Cola 600 victory. The first thing he did after the race was honor U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Null, killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011, whose name was on Truex’s windshield. Null’s family members were at the race, predicted Truex would win and were scheduled to have beers with the winner later.
Chief Null, an explosive ordinance disposal technician as well as an expeditionary warfare expert, free-fall parachutist and diver, was one of 17 U.S. Navy SEAL team members killed when Taliban militants shot down their CH-47 Chinook helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all 38 people on board, most of them American special-ops troops, in August 2011. He was 30 years old.
Null served in Iraq from the very beginning in 2003, when explosive ordinance disposal technicians were in high demand. He earned two Bronze Stars, one with Valor. He was survived by his wife and his mother.
I’m a U.S. Navy veteran; I served during the Cold War years, 1978-’82. I was a “hole snipe,” nautical lingo for “a guy who works in the engine room,” so I didn’t see much daylight when we were floating around the Persian Gulf during the Iranian Revolution and subsequent U.S. embassy hostage crisis.
Just stand watch and sleep and stand watch was all we did. Just like all the hole snipes standing watch on the two U.S. carrier strike forces gathered in the eastern Mediterranean right now.
I didn’t meet too many Navy SEALs during my tour, but every sailor learns in boot camp that SEALs are bad-asses and not to be messed with, which no doubt applied to Null.
I did meet a few members of Delta Force after President Jimmy Carter launched but then aborted Operation Eagle Claw, a failed hostage rescue attempt that fell to pieces in the Iranian desert. We gave a them a ride home after the debacle, but kept our distance in the mess hall. Our cargo also included wreckage from two Chinook helicopters and several bodies of soldiers killed on the failed mission.
They were guys just like Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Null and the 16 Navy SEALs killed after the Taliban downed their helicopter in 2011, 31 years later in Afghanistan. Bad-asses, the men and women who volunteer for dangerous duty, which is never in short supply in our many never-ending conflicts.
NASCAR’s “600 Miles of Remembrance,” which included 30 seconds of silence for the fallen at mid-race, during which you could hear a pin drop, was at times genuinely touching, and paid families of the fallen a much-needed tribute. Several Memorial Day stories this past week emphasized that the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces fighting our wars are just a small sliver of America, less than 1 percent of the population.
But for me, remembrance of the fallen must go a little deeper than “thank you for your service.”
Am I supposed to forget the Bush administration, aided and abetted by mainstream media, lied the country into the Iraq War after 9/11? That Obama merely continued Bush’s policies in the Middle East, invading one country after the next?
What was Chief Null doing in Afghanistan in the first place, 10 years after 9/11?
Our original grievance against the Taliban, sheltering Osama bin Laden, had been mooted months earlier when members of SEAL Team Six killed the fugitive terrorist in Pakistan, where he’d been hiding out in relative comfort for years.
Ironically, six members of Seal Team Six who participated in the bin Laden raid were on board the helicopter and killed with Null when it was shot down.
Did any of them really have to die? Bin Laden was kaput; shouldn’t the war have been over? Why not? It’s not enough to say the fallen knew what they were signing up for. What’s the mission here? Defending our obviously diminishing hegemony over the world against the rise of globalism and mutual cooperation?
Does a mission even actually exist, other than to maintain the Deep State’s momentum?
Of course, we Americans have been trained since at least 9/11 not to ask such questions, particularly on something as sacred as Memorial Day.
Watching the cars coated with their shiny corporate logos going round and round and round at the Coca-Cola 600, hearing the bios of one fallen solider after another at roughly 10-lap intervals for 400 laps, I began to understand how we have collectively sanctioned the killing fields in the Middle East for the past 20 years.
We’ve become numb to it.
That’s why I’ve got the blues.