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Both Sides of the Border

This Memorial Day, remember our war dead as well as those we killed.

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As we kick back on this long holiday weekend, flag-waving politicians of all stripes will urge us to honor those who died in the service of our country. It would be fitting if this remembrance was not only for Americans, but some of our victims as well.

Perceiving ourselves as defenders of freedom and liberators of the oppressed, we tend to overlook the numerous unpleasant military moments of U.S. history. A glance back, however, reveals a rather sordid past that involves many less-than-honorable conflicts.

While eating barbecue and drinking beer this Memorial Day, let's recall those who were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice--whether they be friend or foe. As an example:

When the United States Army was approaching Mexico City in September 1847, a small group of Mexicans attempted to stop the invaders at Chapultepec. One of them was a 14-year-old boy who, before the impending battle, had gone to see his widowed mother. She was praying and weeping when he appeared and the two spent time together. When he departed, she told him, "Go, my only son; go to your duty." While two of his young friends were killed in the fierce fighting the next day, he luckily survived.

A few years later, American Peter Brady was with a survey crew working for the Texas Western Railroad Company. As the men moved south of Tucson through what was then still Mexican territory, they came across a large band of Apache Indians. One of them became impassioned at seeing the outsiders, yelling and screaming at the Americans.

"He picked up a stone in each hand," Brady wrote, "and rushed to the front within a few yards of where I stood, and placing the stones on the ground before him, with an angry voice and excited gesture, swept both hands and arms around and told us that the country was all theirs and that we must turn around and go back."

That obviously didn't happen. Over the next three decades, these native people were exterminated in large numbers. Even though fighting violently, they were eventually swept under by the tide of an advancing onslaught and forced to bend to the will of the conquering American population.

Before the end of the 19th century, the United States was at war with Spain, and one of the battles in the far-flung conflict was at the small Cuban community of El Caney. "The Spaniards were valiant fighters, well led, as if defending Madrid rather than an insignificant Cuban town," writes Harvey Rosenfeld in his book, Diary of a Dirty Little War. But they too were overwhelmed by American force.

Then there is Vietnam. This was not a case where superior military might would triumph. That was due in part to the perception that the North Vietnamese had of us, as is explained in the book Portrait of the Enemy. As one soldier said, "It was our duty to liberate the Southern population that was in misery under the domination of the American imperialists."

Another fighter thought of the westerners, "They were the enemies of all poor people. They were rich because they stole labor from the people they had enslaved ... I wanted to do anything I could to save the people in the South. We had to destroy the Americans now, just as our ancestors had to destroy other foreigners."

In the end, despite the terrible toll it took in lost lives, one Vietcong general concluded of their winning struggle: "How beautiful and noble is the sacred comradeship created by the goal of liberating the homeland and the people."

Many more could be added to this list of American conflicts. And now we can include Iraq on the long list.

At least a few thousand civilians were killed in the fighting there and who knows how many young men gave their lives in defense of their nation against an attack by an outside aggressor? While we claim not to be interested in occupying the country, it seems certain that any Iraqi government in the near future will be of the invaders, by the invaders and for the invaders.

But we as a people will have moved on to something else long before then. Our instant gratification society will have found a new source of entertainment for the moment.

As we look back this weekend, though, we should think of a few things. Since it was first observed in 1868, Memorial Day has been a time to remember our war dead. That is an honorable sentiment. But let us also recall those who we killed: men, women and children who died in the service of their own nations, trying to protect themselves from us.

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