TOM PLATE WRITES — We patriotic Americans usually call it Memorial Day weekend, but sometimes the barbecues and beer throw memory off base, as if the holiday on the last Monday of every May signifies no more than the winding down of a 72-hour party.
On the Saturday of Memorial Weekend, US Vice-President Kamala Harris innocently, if lamely, tweeted, “Enjoy the long weekend” – and that was it. A storm of criticism, not all of it ill-intended or partisan, impelled a clarifying tweet from her the next day: “Throughout our history our servicemen and women have risked everything to defend our freedoms and our country. As we prepare to honour them on Memorial Day, we remember their service and their sacrifice.”
Okay, let’s not make a felony out of a slip. But if we don’t ask ourselves certain questions on Memorial Day, we may never understand who we are. Like: why were we ever in Vietnam – 58,220 US soldiers killed, many more wounded; practically an entire generation of Vietnamese decimated?
Like: why did we have to smash Iraq to pieces – and was the awful Saddam Hussein the lesser evil after all? How many examples must be paraded before we take collective stock of our many ways of war? Every son and every daughter lost in one of our military interventions deprived the affected families of a precious part of their lives and their emotional liberty.
Which brings us to America’s drawn-out Afghanistan blunder. This war, scrambled together in the emotional aftermath of the tragic terrorist attack of September 11, now holds the record for the longest ongoing war in US history. But no president had summoned up the political courage to say: enough is enough, it isn’t working – no more. No president until Joe Biden, that is.
By July, it is estimated, US forces there will either have returned home or been redeployed. Perhaps even by July 4. Someone might wish to nominate this career American politician for the Nobel Peace Prize for his gutsy, clear-headed decision. It certainly merits stellar memorialisation.
But it needs to be emphasised that Biden and his top team are not getting it all right. I have serious concerns about their wolf-to-wolf diplomacy with China. It will prove tragic if, after making the deft decision to pull the plug on the Afghanistan conflict, they wind up tripping on the parochial and risky anti-China line that leads to war.
The hope here is that the decisive Afghanistan climbdown – not halfway into his first year in office – will before long scale up to a larger Biden vision of peace through diplomacy, instead of via Western military dogma.
Beijing, please take careful note and reconsider any tendency to view the withdrawal as a sign of weakness. It is not – it is a power move. As classic Chinese military doctrine teaches, a wise retreat is better than denying an error.
Right now, the Biden presidency enjoys high domestic public approval. A Chinese misreading of what is happening could add to the world’s increasing consensus that Beijing and Washington have got their relationship wrong, in part because neither understands the other.
People are nervous. This recent statement is worth an excerpt: “We remain seriously concerned about the situation in and around the East and South China seas.
“We … encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues. We reiterate our strong opposition to any unilateral actions that could escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order and express serious concerns about reports of militarisation, coercion, and intimidation in the region.”
This is from the final communique of the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ meeting in London in May. The concern here is directed at Beijing, but it takes two to go to war; this is the subtext.
Everyone knows it. Sensible analysts in China fully understand that, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s rhetorical bombing campaign against all things China, Biden must be seen to be watching perceived Chinese escalations like a hawk.
But policies whipped up by nationalism tend to push their governments apart. There can come a point when the only way out of a corner is to shoot your way out. This is too close to where Beijing and Washington now find themselves. More war offers no answers but produces more absurdities.
Even without war, isn’t it true that there is more than enough death in ordinary life? Just six years ago, Biden himself, then America’s vice-president, lost his son Beau, a decorated Iraq war veteran, to the ravages of cancer.
This weekend, my warmest friend paid tribute to his recently departed wife (cancer) at a moving home ceremony. It was emotionally shattering. With death all around us, why add war-making, which rarely solves problems but adds to them?
If we truly care about life, we must care about death: the only fitting Memorial Day tweet would be one that announces a war against war. Otherwise, we all face a future world order that is punitive beyond current imaginations – which might prove nasty, brutish and long.
America, for many reasons, has evolved into the world’s best armed, leading military power. China’s leaders can go on and on about their rugged “wolf warrior” globality, but they’re not fooling anyone except themselves if they actually believe their own rhetoric, that they can match up militarily against an America so deeply (and sadly) experienced over the decades in gritty warfare.
Their best move would be to cage the wolf, talk up the Confucianism and help us all find a way towards much-needed cosmic harmony.
Career journalist and American professor Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University‘s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs, founder of Asia Media International (asiamedia.lmu.edu), and vice-president of the Pacific Century Institute. The original version of the essay appeared in the South China Morning Post, where Prof Plate is. regular op-ed contributor.