Obama’s speech at Ft. Hood, honoring the dead in the recent shooting, is being hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric. Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic says:
“I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.”
And yes, it’s a moving speech, worthy of recognition alongside some of the best ever given by American presidents. For me the strongest parallel is with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not only in its power but in its aim: to soothe the pain, to give meaning and context to the senseless killing, to re-energize the nation to continue the work.
And just like Lincoln’s address, the speech is full of obfuscations, distortions, spin, and propaganda.
So I offer below an alternative speech: the speech Obama should have given.
We come together filled with sorrow for the fourteen souls that we have lost; with gratitude for the lives that they led; and with a determination to honor them — not by carrying on their work, but by setting it aside.
America has been at war almost continuously since its birth, even though it has not been attacked by military arms for fifty years, and no foreign soldier has set foot on this land for two hundred years. Still, these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, in the heartland of the American community, on American soil — soil bought dearly with the blood of American Indians. Perhaps we should not be surprised that war sometimes manages to follow us home. But for those who believe in American greatness and beneficence, the fact that they died in America’s heartland makes the tragedy even more painful and even more incomprehensible.
Today I am called to soothe that pain and give meaning to that meaninglessness. But I will not do so.
For those families who have lost a loved one, no words can fill the void that has been left. You knew these men and women as mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; sisters and brothers.
But what is their true legacy? Here is what you must also know: their life’s work is the freedom that America’s rich and powerful too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town far from the field of battle; every night that predator drones rain fire on innocent marriage parties; every dawn that a flag is unfurled over a conquered land; every moment that a rich, powerful American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that is their legacy.
Neither this empire – nor the capitalist values that it is founded upon – could exist without men and women like these fourteen Americans. And that is why we must pay tribute to their stories.
It is traditional, in times like these, to speak of the dead in as if they were called to a great sacrifice, as if America’s freedom were some vengeful goddess that demands the blood of our sons and daughters. I could speak, for example, of Staff Sergeant Justin DeCrow, who joined the Army right after high school, married his high school sweetheart, and had served as a light wheeled mechanic and Satellite Communications Operator. I could say that he was known as an optimist, a mentor, and a loving husband and father. Speaking of him in this way would hide the fact that he only joined up because he was poor and had few other options; that he and his wife dreamed of retiring from the military and teaching children to ride horses; that he had sought medical discharge due to difficulty sleeping; and he was only there at Fort Hood because his paperwork was tied up in a bureaucratic snarl.
Lincoln said, of the drafted soldiers lying in the bloody mud of Gettysburg, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”, even though they had been drafted and had no choice. And he said, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain … that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” even though the United States was never in any danger of being conquered by the South. Lincoln drafted them to his cause in death, even as he did so in life.
I will not do this. I will not stand here today and enlist the dead, who cannot speak in their own defense, who cannot tell their own stories.
But I will speak of the fourteenth man, Major Nidal Hasan, who joined the military right after high school. Though his body lives, I will honor him here as one of the fallen. His spirit was battered by the strain of prejudice against his Muslim background. His heart was strained by the stress of trying to give psychological help to soldiers returning from battle, to help them deal with the murders they had witnessed and committed, to reload them and return them to kill again. He tried to leave the military; he tried to escape our “volunteer” army, as his conscience called him to do; but he could not get discharged — he was little more than a slave to the American military. At some point his spirit broke, and he committed a horrible act of violence. His body lives, but the state of his soul is unknown.
For those who believe that America is a force for good in the world, it may be hard to comprehend the simple logic that led to this tragedy. But the blame lies squarely upon our military. And nothing justifies our murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. And for what we have done, we know that we will be met with justice – in this world, and the next.
These are expansive times for our military. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we continue to prop up our commercial interests, while endangering innocent Afghans and Pakistanis. In Iraq, we still have not ended a war that is beneficial for our oil companies, and we continue to deny the Iraqi people the independence that they have sacrificed so much for.
Some would say that the stories of those at Fort Hood reaffirm the core values that we are fighting for. We claim that our military is a call of service, responsibility, and duty. But they were not answering a call of service; they were driven to the military by propaganda, fear, social pressure, or poverty. They do not embody responsibility. They do not call us to come together. They were simply people, trying to live as well as they knew how, killed as a side effect of our imperial greed.
We claim to be a nation that endures because of the courage of those who defend it. But our nation endures simply because we are not under attack. It is the military, the empire, which needs defending.
We claim to be a nation of laws — but the laws do not apply equally to all. We will treat a gunman and give him due process, and we will see that he pays for his crimes. But the warmongers and capitalists who ground down his soul and would not let him live a life of peace — these live by a private law, and they will recieve no due process, and give no payment.
We claim to be a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal. We claim to see it in the varied backgrounds of those we lay to rest today. Yet who among them was a rich man? Who among them were executives, lawyers, stockbrokers, politicians? We claim to be on the side of liberty and equality, while our military engages in slavery and prejudice. That is who we are as a people.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day, marking the end of the War to End All Wars, and marking the beginning of all the wars that came after. Our military takes this day to pause, and to pay lip service – for students to learn of the wars and aggression that preceded them; for families to mourn the military murders of parents and grandparents; for citizens to reflect upon the blood that we have spilled in the name of “a more perfect union”.
Our empire’s official history is filled with heroes. We are asked to remember the stories of a grandfather who marched across Europe, but not remember the firebombs that killed so many German children. We are asked to remember an uncle who fought in Vietnam, but not the innocent people killed by our bombers and chemicals. We are asked to remember a sister who served in the Gulf, but not the craven greed of our oil companies.
Are we to honor this generation, too? This generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen are are part of the deadliest fighting force that the world has ever known. They have killed again and again in distant, different and difficult places. They have stood watch over our business interests in blinding deserts and on snowy mountains. They are man and woman; white, black, and brown; of all faiths and stations – all people our military has duped, cajoled, bribed, and herded together to protect our standard of living, while denying others half a world away the chance to lead a better life.
Here, at Fort Hood, we pay tribute to fourteen men and women who were not able to escape the horror of our wars, even in the comfort of home.
Let us not honor them by claiming that one day the fighting will be finished. Let us not gild their memory by saying that they persevered not just when it was easy, but when it was hard; or that they paid the price and bore the burden to secure this nation, or that they stood up for the values that live in the hearts of all free peoples. For they persevered despite their better judgement, and often against their will. They paid the price and bore the burden to secure nothing more than our business interests. They turned against the values that live in the hearts of all peoples — peace, freedom, justice.
Instead, as we say goodbye to those who now belong to eternity, let us set aside this mindless pursuit of war. In their names, let us call home all our troops. In the name of honor and justice, let us disband and disarm. In the name of peace and friendship, let us turn away from violence. In the name of God, let us stand down. And may God bless us all.