The Gold Star tradition for American military families goes all the way back to 1917. I know I take chances of being misunderstood when I make any negative comments on the subject while feelings run high and raw after the public conflict between the Khans and Donald Trump. I don’t want to comment directly on the current political quarrel, which grows out of our country’s divisive political campaigns, nor do I want to say anything that reflects badly on families who have lost members who served their country in war.
Do you remember John Kerry’s outspoken resistance to the Vietnam war after he returned from service there? Remember soldiers who threw their medals into the river after they returned? Remember protesters who spit on soldiers who returned from that war? Remember the general sense of dishonor painted on people who returned from that war: baby killers they were, experts in burning down villages with napalm, and gullible patriots who supposedly dishonored themselves in a dishonorable cause. Donald Trump belittles John McCain fifty years later, asking how McCain could be a war hero if he was captured.
I used to think you had to live through the 1960s to see how fighting and losing a war can divide a nation. Now we are going through a period like that again. Just as the Vietnam war brought basic questions of patriotism into our nation’s conflicts, we see the same phenomenon now, in connection with the way we ought to honor families who have lost members in our country’s wars.
Problems arise if large numbers of people, including patriots in and out of the military, lose faith in their civilian leaders. If they believe civilian leaders engage in chicanery to start wars, profit from them, and ultimately lose them because they were misconceived in the first place, you have a national conversation about warfare, honor and sacrifice that is about to go south fast.
Let’s use the Hunger Games metaphor to illustrate. I know we have a volunteer fighting force now, but the comparison is still not so far off. Suppose the Capital comes into your town to reap adolescents who will fight in a war against each other, until everyone has died but one. The Capital honors each of the families with a symbol of appreciation. It says it’s not an award, but it has to say that because that’s how the symbol is perceived. If government gives medals to soldiers who survive combat, the community will see the symbol of honor it gives to surviving family members of dead soldiers the same way.
The public controversy about Mr. Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention – as well as their son’s military service and death in Baghdad from a car bomb – suggest we have a similar dynamic between citizens and government going on in our country. We saw the same issue when Cindy Sheehan lost her son Casey in Iraq in April 2004, just two months before Humayun Khan died. She led the first grass roots anti-war movement in the United States after that. People questioned her patriotism, but everything she said about the war proved true. Before long, more and more people honored her for her courage, persistence, and advocacy for truth about the war.
Like Cindy Sheehan, but from a different standpoint, the Khans stepped into a snake pit of hidden, mixed and intense feelings about this war. It’s easy to avoid these feelings and celebrate when you win, but bitterness and an atmosphere of recrimination are bound to follow when you lose. You saw that bitterness directed against John Kerry in 2004, even though the charges directed against him were all lies. When emotions run high about lost wars and brave soldiers lost in battle, truth and falsehood don’t matter.
Significantly, Mr. Khan’s charges against Donald Trump were true. Trump’s proposal that we restrict movement of Muslims into and out of the country is unconstitutional. Mr. Khan has extra credibility because he is Muslim, an immigrant, an attorney, a patriot, and he lost his son in Iraq. The entire situation called for Trump to think carefully before he responded to Mr. Khan’s criticism. Of course, that’s not his way. He is both thin-skinned, and notoriously free when he runs his mouth on what’s currently in his brain. He missed a chance to talk about the pain and anger we have to feel when we lose so many young soldiers in a war we had no business fighting.
Donald Trump is not the person to do that. Hillary Clinton is not the person to do it, either. She and her party used Mr. and Mrs. Khan to advance their own purposes. Of course the Khans knew they spoke on Hillary Clinton’s behalf, and decided to take their chances. That took courage. Hillary Clinton and her advisors, however, do not come out of the episode looking nearly as good. Clinton voted for the war in 2002, and since then has remained a consistent advocate for use of American military force. Unlike the Khans and like Donald Trump, she and her family have not sacrificed. She was willing to bait Trump on this sensitive issue anyway.
I mentioned the Gold Star tradition started during the Great War in 1914 – 1918. This conflict represented four years of national insanity on a scale never seen in history. Governments sent their best young men to be slaughtered for no clear purpose other than national honor and primacy. Woodrow Wilson signed a government document that said military families who had lost a son in Europe could fly a flag with a gold star. What would the same government have done if a soldier walked away and said, “I want no part of this bloodbath”? The government would have imprisoned or executed the soldier as a deserter. No honor for soldiers who resist, even if they serve with distinction and wait to protest till they return home, as John Kerry did.
We don’t shoot deserters any more, but in practice, soldiers have no more power to stop fighting than they did back when deserters were shot to deter others from doing the same thing. The cynical placement of government’s sign of approval on the lapels of family members who have lost someone discourages dissent. Families deserve all the honor we can give them, but the source of recognition should not be the same outfit that sent their sons to die in the first place!
Another illustration is a bit looser than the Hunger Games example. Imagine if the Mafia comes into your neighborhood to demand protection money. Give us money and we’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you or your family. Businesses who comply get a blue star. Businesses who sacrifice a son to the Mafia’s coercion get a gold star. If an organization offers recognition while it engages in legal activities that benefit the whole community, that places recipients of recognition in a place where they belong. If an organization offers recognition while it engages in illegal, self-serving activities, that places recipients of recognition in an uncomfortable place.
Even if you want to be patriotic, how can you be when your government acts like that? You can remain patriotic only when you remember that you love your country, not the institutions of authority that claim to represent it. As it is, we have illegitimate institutions of authority willing to take one more page from cynical functionaries, fanatics and totalitarian leaders. We’ll give a star to every family who sacrifices for the revolution, or in this case for democracy. No family has practical power to reject this label, to tell government it has no business reaping youths to die in insane warfare.
Just leave us alone. Stop taking our sons and daughters. Stop attacking countries that have not attacked us. Stop sending our soldiers to be killed for no good reason. Then you won’t have reason to award Gold Stars to make us feel better about what you have done to us.