Memorial Day: Honor sacrifices of the dead with progress for the living

This Memorial Day, honor those that died by protecting the living from governments bad decisions

Flickr creative commons
Flickr creative commons

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif., May 23, 2015 — There are at least two common traits among those whom Memorial Day is meant to honor: They pledged an oath of allegiance to defend our Nation; and they exhibited the depth of their conviction through the sacrifice of their lives. While there may not be any adequate way to demonstrate our profound gratitude, we nonetheless should try, and not just on this day of flying flags and attending brief memorial services, but rather every day that we enjoy the freedom we have purchased with their blood.

With only minor differences, every officer and enlisted member of our military begins his or her service with the following Oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; (along with a faithful discharge of any associated duties). So help me God.”

These Oaths have only slightly changed since the time of the Revolutionary War. However, their general intent has remained the same. Our commitment to remembering those who have paid the ultimate price on our behalf should remain as resolute.

One symbolic gesture on behalf of our Nation occurs when the President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some might consider this to have degenerated into little more than a photo op, yet many still view it to be an appropriate display of respect and appreciation.

In recent history among former Presidents, only President Clinton has a perfect record. President George W. Bush can be excused for his only absence in 2002 as he commemorated the day at the Normandy American Cemetery in France where more than 9,000 of our military personnel are buried. Conversely, his father, President George H. W. Bush, never participated in the ceremony.

Even President Ronald Reagan only attended four of the ceremonies. In fairness, he was recovering from a gunshot wound from an assassination attempt one year and in summit conferences two of the others (one in an attempt to end the Cold War with the Soviet Union).

President Obama missed the occasion in 2010 to spend the day in Chicago. He won’t make that mistake again. While his original schedule for today does not list it to be among his public appearances, we can expect him to surprise us with his attendance at Arlington National Cemetery as he returns from his surprise visit to Afghanistan. After all, it’s an election year.

Of course, symbolic gestures are nice, but substantive gestures are far more important. As our political environment has become more heated in recent years, our military personnel appear to have been disturbingly reduced to the status of pawns in the power game that is being played. Perhaps global warming isn’t as great a threat as the political scalding that is taking place. The former occurs at a relatively glacial pace, while the latter seems to occur at light speed.

Witness two current challenges: The administrative nightmare of the Veterans Administration; and the lack of a discernible foreign policy. Both of these examples have added to the count of those veterans who merit our remembrance on Memorial Day. Unfortunately, many of these deaths could have been prevented. The same can be said of those that otherwise might occur in the future.

Let’s examine the VA issue as an example.

The medical assistance element of the VA was used as a standard bearer for the efficiency and effectiveness of a single-payer healthcare system. We were told that VA hospitals were more efficient and effective than many of their counterparts in the private sector. While the effectiveness of the VA at the actual delivery of medical assistance is probably comparable to the private sector, the efficiency of the administrative aspect of the VA has now been seriously called into question.

As we now know, some administrators within the VA have been earning bonuses by inflating their performance efficiency. They have intentionally kept separate sets of books: One of patients who could be scheduled within the acceptable performance guidelines; and a second list of the patients who are actually in queue for an appointment but could not be scheduled within the required parameters. Had the administrators included all of the patients who were in queue, their performance would have been deemed unacceptable. The unfortunate consequence is that some of the patients died while waiting to be placed on the “official” list.

How heinous is this? Try to imagine the outrage if this were to occur in any other segment of our Government.

For example: How would we respond if the administration tried to report unemployment without including all those individuals who wanted to work but could not find jobs? What would happen if the Administration kept two sets of books: One which contained only the names of those individuals who were eligible (and filed) for unemployment compensation; and a second list of all those other individuals who actually wanted work but couldn’t find work and were ineligible for unemployment compensation? The unemployment percentage would skyrocket and those perceived to be in charge may not have been able to be re-elected. Okay, that’s a bad example.

As President Obama noted during a press conference last week, the administration has known of the VA’s efficiency problems for a long time and has been working diligently on them. In his 2008 campaign then-Senator Obama even ran on the issue. He now boasts that his Administration has greatly increased the funding of the VA.

This is a classic example of how our major Parties have a marked propensity to solve the wrong problem with the limited bag of tricks that lie within their Parties’ platforms. Democratic leaders like to address issues with profligate spending. When that myopic solution fails, they declare the problem to have been bigger than they initially were led to believe, and they assert they will further increase spending to resolve the issue.

Republican leaders like to address such issues with a nearly random approach to cutting costs; just pick a percentage to cut and see what happens. When this inevitably fails, they declare the problem to have been bigger than they initially were led to believe, and they assert they will further cut costs to resolve the issue.

What would happen if they honored our Veterans by actually defining the problem correctly? How can we most efficiently and effectively deliver the highest quality of health care to our Veterans without focusing on any collateral political ramifications?

For example: The VA is the second largest Department in the United States Government (second only to the Department of Defense, which serves as its feeder unit) with approximately 250,000 employees and contractors and a requested 2014 budget of $152.7 billion. While it encompasses a wide array of services, the majority of its budget is directed toward the services and infrastructure of its more-than 1,700 “sites of care,” which include over 160 hospitals and 800 out-patient treatment centers.

What if that capital were deployed in a less infrastructure-intensive manner?

If the Affordable Care Act is anywhere near as “affordable” as we have been led to believe, why not simply fund the enrollment of our Veterans in an ACA Bronze Plan (with an opportunity to privately upgrade if they wished)? Then, guarantee any co-payment and deductible requirements that would otherwise be covered under VA regulations on a basis of service connected disability.

This would expand the base of the ACA to make it more economically viable without adding any additional exposure to taxpayers. Correspondingly, the VA “sites of care” could either be liquidated or absorbed into the private sector.

This would provide a more expansive array of alternatives to our Veterans and dramatically lower the operating cost of the VA, which would inure to the taxpayers’ benefit. It would even placate the political needs of the Democratic Party by expanding the relevance of the ACA and those of the Republican Party by cutting costs within the VA while improving its efficiency.

Meanwhile, our surviving Veterans would have one less battle to fight in an attempt to save their lives; they would no longer have to fight with the VA.

Now that we’ve stimulated some thinking with respect to the VA, let’s explore how we could mitigate the real driver of Memorial Day: Our recurring insistence on intervening in the affairs of foreign nations, often without their consent. Our lack of a discernible Foreign Policy lies at the heart of the problem.

On March 20, 2012, I wrote an article for another publication entitled Foreign Policy: A rational approach for the U.S. The following is an excerpt from that column.

“The reality is that the Constitution doesn’t provide direct guidance with respect to foreign policy. It wasn’t until 1936 that the Supreme Court decided that the Federal Government had exclusive and plenary power over the execution of foreign affairs based upon the fact that the United States is a sovereign nation. So, let’s build upon the “sovereign nation” concept.

“FOREIGN POLICY:  The basis of our own Nation’s sovereignty should be a fundamental respect for the sovereignty of other nations.

“What are the consequences of that simple policy statement?

“It recognizes that the United States is not the ‘watchdog’ of the world. It is not responsible for the socio-economic and political decisions of other nations. Indeed, if we expect other nations to respect the sovereignty of the United States, we must equally honor the sovereignty of those nations.

“This is not to suggest an ‘isolationistic’ point of view but rather to pragmatically accept the limitations of our Government’s authority as well as to acknowledge its primary responsibility, which is to ‘form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’

“When President Obama initially traveled the globe to apologize for ‘America’s arrogance,’ he wasn’t entirely wrong. If his point was to emphasize that the United States has increasingly tried to force its will on other countries, his argument had merit. Unfortunately, his actions since that time have not reflected any meaningful change of course.

“We continue to pursue fruitless ‘nation building’ initiatives (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan) that have been abject failures and cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives over the years. In addition, nearly $30 billion in taxpayer funds are directed toward foreign aid every year, and ironically, the preponderance of it goes to fund the military investments of a handful of predominantly hostile nations. Benjamin Franklin’s definition of insanity would seem to be apropos.

“What if all that time, money and effort were redirected at resolving our own economic challenges rather than attempting to influence the political environments of other countries?

“What if we concentrated on reducing unemployment, poverty and illiteracy in the United States (areas in which our performance has markedly worsened over the past few years)?

“What if we created a model of excellence that inspired other nations to look to us for guidance rather than trying to impose our ideals on them through our purported “nation building” efforts?

“That is the United States of America that I envision: a country that presents such a robust model of success that every nation aspires to learn from our model; a country that engages in the affairs of other nations upon invitation rather than by dictate.

“To accomplish this transformation, we need to do the following:

  • “Respect the sovereignty of other nations.
  • “Concentrate on fixing our problems and creating a better model for the rest of the world. 
  • “Support those nations that consistently demonstrate their support of the United States.
  • “Extend the highest level of consideration to provide such nations with any requested assistance that is in alignment with the strategies, priorities and capabilities of the United States. 
  • “Respect the sovereignty of those nations that do not support the United States.
  • “Withdraw U.S. troops from any country that has not requested our military presence
  • “Withdraw U.S. troops from any country that has requested our military presence but has undermined our troops’ safety or effectiveness.
  • “Withdraw all foreign aid from such countries so as not to interfere with their social autonomy to truly demonstrate our respect for their sovereign right as a nation.
  • “Leave modest diplomatic channels open to facilitate communication.
  • “Request the United Nations to take a more active role with respect to world peace.
  • “Request the U.N. to take a more proactive role with respect to maintaining the peace and responding to situations that potentially require military intervention.
  • “Request the U.N. to exercise a more rational basis in the formation of its committees to maintain some semblance of credibility (as contra-examples: Sudan, which has orchestrated genocide in Darfur, sits on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, and Iran sits on the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women)
  • “If the U.N. ignores the requested changes, reduce the United States’ funding of the U.N. (currently: approximately 22% of the U.N.’s general budget and 27% of its peacekeeping force), or consider withdrawing from the U.N. and requiring the organization to move to another country.
  • “Establish equitable trade relations by mitigating regulatory and labor disparities to the degree possible to create competitive parity.
  • “Create trade agreements that establish new market opportunities for all countries involved.
  • “Respond to emerging global issues or threats in a rational way: time permitting, exhaust all diplomatic channels to resolve global issues or threats to the United States; in the event that diplomatic channels fail to resolve the issue or threat in a timely manner, pursue and impose economic and other sanctions to achieved the desired result; in the event that other countries choose to provide alternatives that allow the infringing country to circumvent such sanctions, deploy cascading sanctions against such enabling countries in a form that would offset any economic (or other) benefit that such enabling countries would otherwise derive; in the event that all other efforts fail to successfully resolve an issue in a timely manner and that such issue poses an immediate or impending threat to the United States, explore all other options (including military).

“Consistently applied, this approach would: (1) stabilize our foreign policy in a manner that is actually consistent with our Constitution; (2) work to create more of a global “equilibrium” with respect to economic and political interests; (3) shift the responsibility for “global order” to global entities (such as the U.N.); and (4) dramatically reduce the cost of our forays into the affairs of other sovereign countries. With regard to “costs,” let us not limit our awareness to the trillions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent. Let us primarily acknowledge the greater cost in human lives that has been incurred.

“We have lost the lives of roughly 6,500 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Approximately 50,000 more have been wounded and it is difficult to assess how many have returned to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In that regard, we know that more returning veterans commit suicide each year than are actually killed in combat on foreign soil.

“These are all real people. They are not just numbers to be reported at a Congressional Committee hearing or reflected upon by the President on Memorial Day; and the lives of each of these people impacts the lives of an exponential number of family members and friends.

“Correspondingly, we can only guess at how significantly greater the number is in each category for the citizens of the countries which have hosted the theaters of war.

“To quote the President, ‘We can do better.’ The question becomes: ‘Then, why haven’t we?’”

On this Memorial Day, let’s offer a prayer not only on behalf of those brave individuals who lost their lives defending our freedom but also on behalf of those whom will needlessly lose theirs in the future if we do not begin to make more rational decisions.


A Civil Assessment has been designed to serve as an Op-Ed forum for you. You are invited to offer your opinion and to discuss your position in the Comment Section. Please be sure that your “assessments” remain “civil” so that they may earn the respect of others.


TJ O’Hara provides nonpartisan political commentary every Tuesday on The Daily Ledger, one of One America News Network’s featured shows (check local cable listings for the channel in your area or watch online at 8:00 PM and Midnight PM Eastern / 5:00 and 9:00 PM Pacific. His segment appears about 35 minutes into the program.

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  • Jonathan Strackman

    Another terrific piece TJ.

    One part I had to comment about specifically. You said, “Support those nations that consistently demonstrate their support of the United States.” I agree. I hate seeing our taxpayer dollars sent to regimes that hate us. Unfortunately, our government seems to believe the idea that we can buy “love”. If we only give them money, they’ll like us and act better. Oh, they might give lip service to us publicly, but then privately (and in policy) do the opposite. And then we do it over and over again. That’s the true definition of insanity.

    It goes all the way back in our history. When we first became a country, our ships were constantly raided by Barbary pirates. (Barbary Pirates were not really pirates, but rogue nations interrupting international trade.) Seems the new United States flag didn’t intimidate anyone like in the days we were flying the British Union Jack. Also, unbeknownst to us, countries like Britain and France were paying bribes to the pirates to leave their ships alone. In 1784, under the Articles of Confederation, Congress appropriated $60,000 as “tribute” (or aid) to the Barbary states to leave our ships alone. By 1795, America was paying over $1 million per year to the Barbary states and still additional ransom for hundreds of sailors. Nowadays, some of our foreign aid seems to be nothing more than bribes to “try and be nice.”

    • Thank you for your kind words and comment, Mr. Strackman.

      Your Barbary pirates analogy is directly on point. We often “pay tribute” to other countries in the hope that it will reflect positively upon our country. Unfortunately, the “tribute” rarely makes its way into the hands of those who are in need.

      I’ve always liked the quote attributed to Israeli leader Shimon Peres, who once said, “Giving is problematic. We take money from poor people in rich countries and give it to rich people in poor countries.” That is a relatively accurate description of what foreign aid has become.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  • Eric N Keya Erickson

    Great article, as usual. I personally have not had any problems at VA facilities themselves, but I have had continuous problems trying to get the VA to recognize injuries that I sustained while on Active Duty. It’s easier to flap my arms and fly to the moon than to get the VA to work with me.

    The foreign policy that you outlined would certainly make a difference. I saw a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode the other day that got me thinking about this. In the Star Trek: TNG world, Earth is at peace with itself, maintains a delicate cease fire with some civilizations, and has a standing policy not to interfere with the internal workings of civilizations. First, I thought, how could the nations of Earth manage to find a way to get along? Using the US as the world’s policemen/watchdog doesn’t work, but perhaps a combined international effort through the UN could work to remove repressive governments and extend freedom to all. But how do you do that without taking away people’s right to self-determination? Or do we assume that their right has already been taken away, and we act to restore that right? It’s very complex, but with a set of standards for all people (like the Declaration of Human Rights) it seems like we could at least have a starting point for action. I don’t know. But I think the policy you outlined above would be a great starting point for the US.

    • Thank you for your kind words and comment, Mr. Erickson.

      I have heard mixed reviews about the medical care that the VA offers, but that is to be expected with respect to any entity within the healthcare sector. However, the vast majority of feedback I have received pertaining to the VA’s administrative process reflects the sentiments you have expressed above.

      It is unfathomable to me that this problem continues to exist. We should either streamline the process within the VA or find an alternative path of administration (as was suggested in the article).

      Correspondingly, one element that has exacerbated the problem in recent years is the surge in those who are in need of VA care. The drivers of that issue are our prolonged engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      If the President were to have made good on his 2008 campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan, one might reasonably ask why has it taken eight years to do so? Our original mission in that country was accomplished nearly a decade ago.

      Instead, we chose to participate in a protracted round of nation building; a political activity that has almost no chance of working in Afghanistan;’s cultural environment. Not to be a naysayer, but does anyone really think that Afghanistan will maintain whatever progress it has made upon the withdrawal of our troops?

      The reality is that our social structure is in conflict with the culture of that country, and when left to its own devices, it is likely to return to its roots. I hope that I am wrong in this regard, but I rather doubt it.

      The bullet points in the original article were extracted from my 2012 campaign platform. Our country is struggling in its global relationships because it has no definitive foreign policy. One day we draw a “red line” and the next day we ignore it. We impose strong sanctions, then we lift them without receiving anything meaningful in return. It is almost impossible to describe our approach as anything other than “ad hoc.”

      As Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” That is a frighteningly accurate reflection of our current foreign policy. I just reintroduced a few thoughts to stimulate some thinking around the issue.

      It is my sincere hope that someday we will stop using our military personnel as expendable pawns and realize they are our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, the parents of our children, or our children themselves. Memorial Day seemed like the perfect occasion to make that point.

      Thank you again for your comment.

  • Thank you for your comment, Mr. Kahr.

    Let’s assume that your statement is correct. Would you forgo the attempt to create some degree of order from the major patterns that can be identified, or would you pursue it?