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Memorial Day should have no future

Posted By May 25, 2012 | 5:53 pm | Commentary

By Stephen Kent Catholic News Service

When Leon Panetta told us to behave, we behaved.

At the time, Panetta was not the nation’s defense secretary. He was the prefect (a residential adviser in today’s term) in our dormitory at an all-male university. Still, it makes for a good story.

Many decades later, Panetta is still telling young men to behave, only this time as head of the nation’s military and recent remarks he made concerning soldiers behaving badly.

The widely publicized episodes he rebuked included the burning of Qurans, images of Marines urinating on Afghan insurgents’ corpses and photos showing U.S. soldiers posing as they held the severed legs of a suicide bomber.

This does not help win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population, a point Panetta made in an early May speech to the troops at Fort Benning, Ga.

“These days, it takes only seconds — seconds — for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline,” Panetta said. “And those headlines can impact the mission that we’re engaged in, they can put your fellow service members at risk, they can hurt morale, they can damage our standing in the world and they can cost lives.”

Memorial Day is set aside to honor Americans killed in the nation’s wars. Many of the dead we will remember this year for the first time were still in grade school when the 11-year war in Afghanistan began.

It would be nice to think their sacrifices were made in a cause with a successful conclusion. But there seems to be no end to it.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama flew to Afghanistan to sign a 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The strategic partnership agreement is short on specifics. Obama’s speech did not lay out a new timetable for the war other than American military presence will continue for 10 years after combat troops are pulled out by the end of 2014.

The agreement provides for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, for the purposes of training Afghan forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaida. These forces will need to be protected (remember Vietnam “advisers”?). This means more troops and off we go again.

Troops on the ground, in whatever role, will perpetuate the situation, assuring that today’s fourth-graders will be an integral part of any future Memorial Day.

When Panetta was overseeing our antics at college, Vietnam was looming.

Substitute the name Hamid Karzai for Nguyen Van Thieu, back then the president of the Republic of South Vietnam, which later fell to the Viet Cong of North Vietnam, and the script is the same.

American forces are entering an already raging civil war, propping up an unpopular government. Then, as now, American soldiers behaved badly.

In Vietnam, they cut off ears, posed with Viet Cong bodies. But communication then was not nearly as instantaneous and widespread as today.

The Vietnam War cost more than 58,000 American military lives, which will be recalled this Memorial Day.

The Afghanistan hostilities, which appear guaranteed to extend for another decade in some form under the strategic partnership, already cost around 1,950 lives to be recalled this Memorial Day.

Memorial Day should have no future. It should be about the past.

Kent, now retired, was editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at: