Small Wars Journal

Dishonoring the Fallen

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Dishonoring the Fallen

Tony Stark

Like many of kids in my generation, I grew up on my grandfather's war stories from the Pacific.

My grandfather never talked much about heroics, he simply related experiences, and those that stuck out most to me were the war crimes of the Japanese on Guadalcanal. The viciousness of the Imperial Japanese, the brutality of their tactics, the twisted manipulations of common decency, hit hard and shaped my own moral compass. Perhaps no story hit more so than using the flag of the red cross to protect their big guns. My grandfather was a fighter, a man who possessed all the fears and anxieties that we sll possess, but who still signed up to fight, to kill the enemy and to protect America. And for all of the patriotism, for that love of country, he was not blind to morality like some claim we must. He never murdered civilians, he never made sport out of a fight for his life. He never slaughtered the helpless whether they were in uniform or otherwise.

He feared atomic war, and he understood the horrors of violence to know that some things simply should not be done in the name of fighting for one's country.

War is a complicated, vile necessity. We have laws of war and rules of engagement for a reason. We have to retain our civility so we can carry on when we get home, when the bullets stop flying, and so that we may uphold the cause of liberty and justice for all. Every civilian we kill is a victory for the enemy, every residential block we indiscriminately pulverize is more than propaganda for the enemy, it is a poison on the American soul.

I joined the infantry to get away from the toxicity of DC, I had watched our institutions crumble from within and I wanted new perspective, I wanted to maintain my own morality and to help fight for freedom. And I still do, but I am so afraid that that poison, that decay, has accompanied me. As Americans our mere existence is an act of rebellion against tyranny and oppression, but only so long as we uphold values that bring light to the world in the face of tyranny's darkness. As members of the armed forces, it is our obligation to support and defend the US Constitution, the core values and beliefs that have made America that shining city on a hill. We don't murder innocents, we don't kill indiscriminately, we don't hunt women and children like animals, we don't make sport out of war. And we cannot condone that in our fellow service members, our allies, or in our leadership. I am an infantryman, it is my job and the job of my fellow soldiers to close with and destroy the enemy.

The enemy is not unarmed women and children, the enemy is the guy with the gun who hides behind those innocents, the enemy is the tool of oppression, the slaughterer of innocents, the torturer. We must not become the enemy.

If we don't adhere to our standards, if we don't punish offenders and protect the innocent, then we not only hurt our current war effort, but we make it that much harder to fight the next war. How do we claim our moral high ground on top of the stacked, desecrated bodies of innocents? And at home, how do we maintain good order and discipline in our ranks, how do we show victims and whistleblowers that we care if we shrug off such blatant crimes against humanity?

When I was in DC I fought so hard to convince my friends on the other side of the aisle that warfighters were not the stereotyped brutes that they imagined, that war criminals were the exception, not the rule. That America stood for liberty and justice for all, that we were not massacring innocent farmers for sport from helicopters. And I fought even harder to convince my Republican friends that we had to maintain a standard for our service members. That rules of engagement and the laws of war mattered, that victory relied on more than bombs and bullets. If we allow our own war criminals to go unpunished, then we are only encouraging that behavior. If we forego justice, then we forego the high ground. We give up what it means to be an American, to rebel against brutality and oppression. We are not our enemy, but for only as long we keep ourselves in check.

This Memorial Day, if we want to honor our fallen, we must keep our honor. Do not insult the sacrifices of the millions who have fought and died for liberty by protecting the worst of us from the justice that they so rightly deserve. The heroes we should aspire to be like are the SEALs who fought so hard and risked everything not only to take the fight to the enemy but to report the crimes of their teammate. Just because it's difficult to keep one's emotions in check and maintain sanity in the middle of war, does not mean that we should excuse such blatant acts of indiscriminate acts of violence. Every drop of innocent blood spilled is a stain on our flag.

And so, I call on the veterans in congress, the representatives of the American people and of this war and those before it, to protect the sacrifices of their brothers and sisters, to maintain the sanctity of American values, to continue their fight for liberty and justice for all. I call on them to condemn even the consideration of pardons for our war criminals.

Because they are our war criminals, and we are responsible for their actions. And they must be punished, lest we allow their poison to infect us all and destroy our military without the enemy lifting a finger. It's on all of us to no longer be bystanders, I for sure won't remain silent again. And I hope no one else will either.

Moreover, I call on leaders across the armed services, from commanding generals to squad leaders, to have a conversation this Memorial Day weekend about morality and warfare, about our roles and obligations as representatives of America, of how to find and maintain conscience in the chaos of war.

We can be like the cowardly leadership that threatens whistleblowers, or we can be the best of us and risk everything to protect the values that make us Americans. We can still be the shining light to the oppressed, it's up to us. All of us.

About the Author(s)

Tony Stark is currently serving in the US Army Infantry. He holds a BA in International Studies from American University, is a recovering DC politico, and is the founder of BreakingBeijing.com.