Memorial Day, 2021
Photo credit: Ambasciata USA Italia / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As we remember and mourn those who died in various wars, we also need to remember how these wars came about. You may think you know, but you may be surprised by what you read here.

For most of us, Memorial Day is just a collage of impressions from television specials: Bugles playing taps… flags being folded… somber-faced people standing ramrod-straight… speeches… final salutes… long shots of endless fields of gravestones…  human interest stories of unshaven, craggy-faced veterans, some with old medals pinned to their rags, sleeping under bridges, curled up in garbage bags…

But for those who want a less impressionistic view of what this day is about, we present a small collection of our past stories that honor the memories of fallen soldiers — and illuminate some of the reasons there are so many to mourn on this day.     

These stories reflect a tragic reality: There is no shortage of rationales to go to war, no shortage of targets, no shortage of armaments, no shortage of recruits, no shortage of those who even consider war an exciting game — as long as it’s fought by others. In fact, the only thing we may run out of some day is space for all the graves.

WhoWhatWhy introduction by Milicent Cranor

From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America’s Wars 

As he watched a video of Tomahawk missiles zooming off to an airbase in Syria, NBC’s Brian Williams seemed ecstatic:

We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield… What did they hit?

The affable anchor with the lopsided smile sounded like a little boy watching an especially exciting video game.  [April, 11, 2017]

General, Wesley Clark

Gen. Wesley K. Clark (Ret.) Photo credit: Center for American Progress / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Gen. Wesley Clark Shocker on 9/11 “Policy Coup” 

In this stunning but little-known speech from 2007, Gen. Wesley Clark claims America underwent a “policy coup” at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He reveals that, right after 9/11, he was privy to information contained in a classified memo: US plans to attack and remove governments in seven countries over five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.  [August 10, 2012]

Navy, recruiter, high school

Navy recruiters conduct presentations at Everett High School in Boston, Massachusetts, about the Navy’s nuclear programs. Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Page / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Warriors Wanted: Does the US Military Prey on Teenagers? 

Air Force veteran Eddie Falcon enlisted as a teenager just before the September 11 attacks, partly to escape his violent Los Angeles County neighborhood. “I just didn’t see a lot of opportunities to succeed,” he said. Falcon assumed war “wasn’t something we were doing anymore.”  He ended up deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan twice, “getting trapped in another cycle of violence — just a different one.”  [November 12, 2019]

RadioWhoWhatWhy: Keyboards Are the New F-15s

Modern warfare is now a clash of narratives that fit in a tweet. Not as an adjunct to physical warfare, as propaganda once was, but as an end in itself. As we have seen in Ukraine, and in what might be called Cold War 2.0, disruption, confusion, and uncertainty about what is and isn’t true can contribute to the destabilization of entire countries.  [January 5, 2018]

Private armies and mercenary groups are more powerful now than ever. But are they really about protecting civilians—or the interests of their corporate masters? Photo credit: US State Dept, International (Green) Zone. Image by Tmaull, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

The Future of Outsourced Warfare: An Interview with Erik Prince 

At the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractor personnel came to outnumber troops in the theatre of war. Blackwater, though not even the largest contractor, became the symbol of that situation. WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman discusses the ways of government contractors and the future of outsourced warfare with Blackwater founder, Erik Prince.  [June 6, 2015]

JFK, PT-109, crew

Lt. John F. Kennedy and crewmen of the PT-109, 1943.
Photo credit: JFK Library

JFK’s War Heroism Speaks Louder Than Rhetoric of War-Dodging Chicken Hawks

Talking tough about military action and being tough are not one and the same. That’s worth remembering in the Trump era, when potential conflicts always seem just a tweet away.  While many politicians, including President Donald Trump, have been quick to threaten military action, few have seen the horrors of war up close. As Trump rattles his sword at a shifting cast of enemies, with Iran the latest, it is worth remembering not to trust in the bellicosity of those who “mean business”… when it is others who will suffer. 

Ironically, those who know combat firsthand are often the last to suggest aggressive intervention.  [August 22, 2018]

Give Me Tomorrow, Korean War Memorial

Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story — The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company by Patrick K. O’Donnell (left). Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC (right).
Photo credit: Da Capo Press and Mike Turner / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A Memorial Day Look at Those Who Fought in Korea

“What would you want if you could have any wish?” asked the photojournalist of the haggard, bloodied Marine before him. The Marine gaped at his interviewer. The photographer snapped his picture, which became the iconic Korean War image.  

Finally, the soldier revealed his wish: “Give me tomorrow,” he said at last.  [May 25, 2018]


America’s longest war continues.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / WhoWhatWhy (CC BY-SA 2.0) See complete attribution below.

Want to Support the Troops? Stop Sending Them to Die in Meaningless Wars

I get really emotional when I watch videos of members of the armed forces coming home after a long deployment to surprise their loved ones. I put myself in the shoes of these families who were separated for months and can feel the love. 

Then I get angry. I get angry because these reunions are as touching as they are senseless.  [August 8, 2017]

How Do You Support Your Troops — Regular, Special, or Super?

As we celebrate Memorial Day, it can be hard to remember that this is not principally intended as a day off from work for most of us, but as an occasion to honor dead soldiers who were once actual living persons, with many years of expected life ahead of them. While contemplating the reality of all these dead young people, we would do well to ponder why soldiers are currently dying in …  [May 30, 2011]

“The Apotheosis of War” by Vasily Vereshchagin. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Memorial Day in Searing Images 

In his book From Here to Eternity, James Jones described the magic moment when his lead character first picked up a bugle. The young man had loved the blues, and now he would be able to play them. He said the blues “gave him something, an understanding, a first hint that pain might not be pointless if you could only turn it into something.” Jones turned his own pain into a great novel. And, in the pictures below, you can see how different artists have turned the pain of war into something — images we hope you never forget.  [May 28, 2018]


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