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.

“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.

Headline ADD

I have this concept that Americans (and perhaps people all over the world) have, what I call, “Headline ADD”. Often, there’ll be a huge event, and people will become hysterical over it, panic, or just talk about it a lot. The event will take over the airwaves 24/7, and dinner conversation will become, “Hey, what do you think of ______?”. If it’s a natural disaster, people will start to give money, or organize fund raisers. If it’s a human tragedy, people will make their Facebook status’ “RIP ___”, or forward mass e-mails about the event. But then– almost always– Headline ADD kicks in. Clearly, people are influenced by the news stations and papers who stop covering the story after it loses its appeal.

It happened with Katrina– people watched what played out in the south, held some fund raisers, and forgot about it. (I even remember having a lemonade stand in front of my house “for victims of Katrina”.) It happened with the Swine Flu “epidemic”. It happened with the earthquake in Haiti. It happened with the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in iceland. It happened with the car bomber in Times Square.

To an extent, it even happened with 9/11. In a response to the worst human tragedy ever to take place on American soil, people became patriotic, put American flags on their cars, and started saying the Pledge of Allegiance. But, again, people began to stop talking about it (until George Bush reminded them of it when he invaded Iraq and Afghanistan) and other things became more important.

Headline ADD. It’s real.


I’d like to know the origin of the notion that killing people solves problems. Maybe it’s a way of creating a scapegoat, or perhaps it’s just a way of blowing off steam. It could be that they have something that we want, or our desire to round up all of our problems and dump them on someone else. But it seems to me that the value of human life is being overlooked and ignored when four thousand three hundred and ninety seven American troops have been killed in Iraq, and we’re still there. Don’t you read that number and shudder?

Politicians will give us the same answers: we need to think about the “bigger picture”. If we leave, the country will be worse off. They need us there. We need to finish what we started. Well, WE’RE KILLING THEM, AND THEY’RE KILLING US. What’s productive about that? What’s holy about that? What’s honorable about that?

History repeats itself; war and its motives are always the same. Bob Dylan had it right in 1963, when he wrote “Masters of War”:

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

If the “bigger picture” is all you can see, then it’s time for you to look closer. Question: before today (when President Obama met with President Karzai), when was the last time you read an article about either war? Or thought about them? Maybe it’s a war over oil, or maybe it’s a war over ideology, or a war over terrorism, or over a son’s desire to impress his dad, or maybe just a war over patriotism. But regardless of its epithet, it’s still a war. Imagine, for a day, everyone used the term “bloody killing spree” instead of “war.” What effect would that have on the world?

Alas, war exists, and while it exists, it is our responsibility to support our troops– wherever they may be. And the best way to support our troops?

Bring. Them. Home.