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Memorial Day and Organized Forgetting

May 28, 2019

There is a need for social movements that invoke stories as a form of public memory, stories that have the potential to unsettle common sense, challenge the commonplace, and move communities to invest in their own sense of civic and collective agency.”  Henry Giroux, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine

Yesterday, millions of Americans enjoyed a long weekend, spending time with family and friends, and firing up the grill to celebrate Memorial Day. Memorial Day is designated as a day to remember, specifically to remember and honor US soldiers, whom, we are taught, have been and are still fighting for our freedom.

Now, I don’t know how many people actually believe that, but as I was thinking about the significance of Memorial Day, I came to realize that it was not so much a day to remember, but a day to forget.

The late radical historian Howard Zinn would often say that the way most people learn US history is through the lens of the historical winners – those in power, both politically and economically. Zinn would also say that so much of the real history, the history from below, has fallen into the historical memory hole. We have either forgotten much of the history from below or it was never presented to us.

If Memorial Day, is a day for the public to re-member US soldiers and US militarism, then by all means, let’s re-member this collective history.

I wanted to start by quoting the most decorated military officer in US history, General Smedley Butler. After Butler retired from the military, he wrote one of the most important critiques of the US military. Initially given as a speech, Butler then wrote a short booklet entitled, War is a Racket. Here is one brief excerpt from what Butler believed was his real purpose as a US military leader.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

The United States was founded on two foundational realities. First, the US practiced what indigenous scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz calls Settler Colonialism, which was a practice of indigenous land theft by euro-Americans. The second foundational aspect of the creation and expansion of the US was slavery. The United States would never have become the dominant global power it is today if it had not stolen indigenous land and then created wealth by relying on chattel slavery for the first century of its existence.

Most US history books do not include the critique that the US was founded on settler colonialism and slavery, but this is a fact which is impossible to suppress. In Ward Churchill’s important book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of US Imperial Arrogance and Criminality, he devotes a large section of the book providing a chronological overview of US militarism between 1776 and 2003. Churchill methodically documents US military actions against First Nations people in North America and US militarism abroad.

In the 1980s, I remember being part of an action at the Federal Building in downtown Grand Rapids. The action was designed to draw attention to US support for the Contra forces who were fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, primarily by engaging in terrorist attacks against civilians. On Memorial Day of 1986, we placed about 100 cross on the Federal Building lawn, each with the name of a Nicaragua civilian who had been killed by Contra soldiers. We wanted to demonstrate that US militarism had a cost and we wanted to NOT forget that innocent people were the victims of US imperialism. We wanted to re-member!

Another person who has documented US military interventions is Professor Zoltan Grossman. Grossman has been documenting this history for years and he has a list beginning with the US Army massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, through 2014. What Grossman has done is not only to document the history of US militarism, but to provide us with a tool or a mechanism to re-member, to put back together again and to resist what Henry Giroux calls Organized Forgetting.

What follows is what Grossman has documented, which you comes from this link. While this list does not provide many details, it does demonstrate that US militarism and US imperialism has always been an integral part of US history. Millions of people have been murdered during this history, millions more displaced, yet it is history that gets put down the memory hole by politicians and pundits alike. Let us not forget this history and let us all re-member!



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