The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts – Why Memorial Day is Personal, Even When it’s Not

I’ve never fought in a war and I probably never will. I’m not brave enough. I could write about tragedy (and I often do), and perhaps my words would be resonant – but to me, they’d ring hollow, because I really don’t know what tragedy is. I’ve never seen it firsthand and I’ve never felt it coursing through my veins, nor out of them.

There are days when I wake up and just can’t get out of bed. My alarm clock goes off and I hit the ‘snooze’ button. It goes off again and I hit ‘snooze’ again. On those days, I wish someone would drop me in the middle of a US Army base in Afghanistan.

Unless I wake up every morning, hold an M-16 in the palms of my hands, and stare into the eyes of a desolate desert, how am I expected to feel anything – sadness, honor, hubris, anger, any sort of emotional entrenchment? How does one pay homage to something that he cannot begin to understand? On days like today, I push myself to feel a sense of tangible pride; but instead, I feel it vicariously.

Aristotle theorized that in metaphysics, and in all expressions of life and humanity, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One book is more influential than three hundred individual pages. One army is more powerful than three-thousand warriors. On this Memorial Day, so too is one nation greater than three-hundred million people.

On days like this – days when it is difficult for me to become passionately attached to individual stories or grasp the sheer courage of American fighters of generations past – I find solace in the notion that the frailty of the human condition will always be eclipsed by the might of the American resolve.

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the suspicion that you are part of something greater than yourself? That is what I do see firsthand – what courses though my veins – in place of any void I feel in the area of personal sadness on Memorial Day.

May the blessing of their memories shine as the stars and stripes wave.

Camaraderie Out of Extremity – Gratitude in the Wake of the bin Laden Assassination

Last night, I was flying with my family back from Portland to Los Angeles. As we strapped ourselves into our seats and powered down our cell phones, a muffled voice came over the plane’s speaker system.

“This is your captain speaking,” said the voice. “Just wanted to let you all know that President Obama is speaking right now at the White House and they killed Osama bin Laden.” Cheers and applause erupted from the elated passengers – among them, a businessman dressed to the nines, a mom traveling with her young son and daughter, and an elderly bearded man dressed in traditional Sikh garb.

When I got home, I had several text messages and voice mail messages waiting on my phone. “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” said one. “Got ‘em!” said another. The social networks (Twitter and Facebook) flared up with similarly nationalistic sentiments: photos of American flags, videos of military marches, assertions of American exceptionalism. Then, at school today, students greeted the news with marked astonishment and awe and – though some were hesitant – many expressed euphoria at the assassination. The last time Americans acted in such patriotic accord was, in fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

On September 12, 2001, in the wake of national tragedy, I went with my father to buy an American flag at a local banner store. When we got to the store, we were surprised to find ourselves at the back of a line that stretched around the block. Everyone wanted to buy a flag. Everyone wanted to prove that he or she was a piece of the American puzzle.

And today, as the dust finally settles, camaraderie has returned. Even in the heat of the most vitriolic and polarizing climate in modern political history, Americans seem to be united again around one cause – one ideal. It is evident to me that in times of extremity – and, all too often, only in such times – people collaborate. When two students feel helpless before their history test, they may come together to study. When two companies are faltering on the brink of collapse, they may merge. So too, when Americans feel overcome by mourning, or overjoyed with pride, something magnificent happens.

Tomorrow, of course, we’ll all return to our bickering; Democrats will be Democrats, Republicans will be Republicans, we will be we, and they will be they. But today, as we witness the power of mutual loyalty, I am grateful to live in a country whose citizens sometimes – everyone once in a while – find allies in one another.

This is Truth Be Told’s 100th post.

Election Guide

If you think that more minorities belong in jail, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’ve seen your share of nature and have come to terms with letting the rest of it go, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that no one else should benefit from your success, that you and your money are better off in the a secluded bubble of wealth, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe those who are different should be sent away, ostracized, or persecuted, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know which religion is best, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that not all Americans have the right to health insurance, if you think that only those who can afford it should have it, and that you are not somewhat responsible for the well being of your neighbor, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that the government doesn’t serve any critical function, or if you feel the deep desire to give up your compensation when you retire, if you have the concrete knowledge that you’ll never lose your job and you’ll never be in need of financial assistance–why bother having welfare?–vote Republican tomorrow.

If poor people are none of your concern and poverty–you’re sure–is a back burner issue, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to love, that the distinctions are clear, that the government should dictate to Americans who they can and can’t love, and  that feelings should be in the hands of Congress, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that corporations shouldn’t be held accountable for deeply destructive environmental policies and financial irresponsibility that has proven detrimental to millions, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re under the impression that the subprime mortgage crisis couldn’t have been  prevented by regulation and oversight, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you don’t believe in the American Dream and instead believe that those seeking it should be sent away en masse, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know that we need more wars, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that Texas oil billionaires need more money, that large companies should be able to fund major political campaigns, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re sure that old white men should make decisions about what does or doesn’t happen to bodies of young women, vote Republican tomorrow.

But if you’re interested in a future antithetical to the one just described, you may want to reconsider your vote. I cast my vote for the Democratic Party in 2010.

“Only Iraqis”

Sometimes presidential jargon can become confusing and misleading. In fact, that is often precisely the administration’s goal: to say one thing while making it look like they’re saying another. For today’s post, I’ve taken snippet’s from the president’s speech and translated them into layman’s terms in an attempt to highlight some main themes that I think the president was trying to to illustrate.

  • “Because of our troops and civilians -and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people – Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.”

Translation: Take it, it’s yours. But don’t expect it all to be perfect.

  • “The Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.”

Translation: This is where we drop you off. We’ve given you a clean pallet. I (Obama) got people to finally leave your country– don’t screw it up.

  • “We have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We have closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis. And we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq.”

Translation: We have done everything in our power to make sure that you are set up for success. You can’t blame me for the beginning because I wasn’t around; that was Bush. You can just credit me with the end. You are now a sovereign, independent entity, and it’s your responsibility to move forward.

  • “This year also saw Iraq hold credible elections that drew a strong turnout. A caretaker administration is in place as Iraqis form a government based on the results of that election. I encourage Iraq’s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people.”

Translation: To all my critics who claim that we’ve left Iraq too early and without providing them with sufficient help in the leadership-building process, you are wrong. I encouraged and monitored democratic elections in Iraq. Iraq’s people have elected a government and it is in place. The country is being run by elected insiders, which is a vast improvement from the previous arrangement– a country run by American outsiders.

Starting to sense a pattern? The President is saying over and over again: it’s in their hands now. Obama, of course, isn’t just dropping the Iraq issue off his agenda forever. During several parts of the speech, he spoke about out continued commitment to helping His goal is for Iraq rebuild and restart; but he’s trying to distance himself as much as possible from a war that (he will go on to clarify in no uncertain terms) he did not start.

The following, however, is what I would consider to be the most important part of the President’s speech.

  • “Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits.”

Translation: Let’s use the transitive property to figure this one out. (If a=b and b=c, then a=c.) If Bush started the war and the war helped cause the recession, then Bush helped cause the recession. Let’s use it again. If the war helped cause the recession and Obama ended the war, then Obama is helping to end the recession. His writers must be pretty smart guys, huh?

During the segment about Afghanistan, Obama made another important point.

  • “As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. “

Translation: Keep in mind that he phrases this entire argument as a fight against Al Qaeda. Instead of making this another “War in Iraq”– aka a war in/with another country– he’s making it very specifically against a group of people– terrorists. Obama is waging a war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda that just so happens to be taking place in Afghanistan.

Hope this helped clear up a little bit of the murkiness of Obama’s speech.