What US Federal Holidays Can Tell You About America’s Inherent War Culture
Half of all federal holidays in the US directly or indirectly glorify warfare. As the country celebrates Presidents’ Day, here is an in-depth look at American society’s infatuation with organized violence and its perpetrators.
Individuals as ideologically dissimilar as Germany’s former conservative Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid have said that when judging a country, one should look at the way it treats its minorities.
There is an additional metric one might employ when attempting to judge the character of a country, namely by looking at its roster of official public holidays. In the case of the US, the list of its twelve federal holidays is particularly revealing when one realizes that of those twelve, six of them (that’s half) glorify bad faith warfare in one way or the other (“bad faith” describing wars of aggression as opposed to wars of resistance against aggressors).
With Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the US feels the need to have not one, but two holidays, that celebrate former soldiers like the ones that invaded Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and have been fighting an Islamophobic "War on Terror" for over two decades, killing millions of people in whose countries they had no right to be in the first place. Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day then go beyond paying tribute to the mere actors of war by proudly commemorating acts of wholesale, white supremacist genocide against the indigenous population of the Americas.
As if these weren’t enough, another two holidays are designated to specifically put on the pedestal the commander-in-chief of the US military, a.k.a. the president: Presidents’ Day (officially Washington’s Birthday), and the quadrennial Inauguration Day. This leaves three “activist” holidays (Martin Luther King Day, Labor Day, and the most recent to receive federal recognition, Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of African-American slaves), as well as Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Independence Day, which celebrates the dubious accomplishment of American colonizers kicking out British ones, to complete the list.
Personality cult in the “Evil Empire”
In the judgemental eyes of West-centric discourse, state-sponsored veneration of a nation’s leader is primarily associated with countries deemed as authoritarian. But that same discourse finds nothing wrong with the idolatrous and inflationary American practice of displaying ceremonial portraits of the US president/commander-in-chief in government offices and business premises across the country.
As a kid growing up in the US in the 1980s, I remember my father having to work at his D.C. office desk with the framed likeness of Ronald Reagan looking over him, the actor turned politician who famously labeled the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire”, but whose own evil policies as governor of California and President of the US are too numerous to name (his 1983 military invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya three years later being the most prominent from a foreign policy perspective).
The personality cult surrounding the president is an American idiosyncrasy utterly at odds with the core tenets of a liberal democratic society in which power lies with the people, and heads of government and state should therefore aspire to be of the people, not above them: in Germany, for example, there is no “Chancellors’ Day” and former four-term-chancellor Angela Merkel - by no means a saint with regards to her neoliberal domestic policies that have facilitated Germany’s rising social inequality - in her signature modesty even declined an honorary chairmanship of her Christian Democratic party upon leaving office, saying such a practice was outdated.
Adding to this the proliferation of pilgrimage sites of presidential worship across the US, as evidenced by such gargantuan edifices such as the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in Washington, D.C. and by the megalomaniacal monstrosity that is Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, it seems as if Americans have taken presidential idolatry to near-pathological heights.
Constructed illegally between 1927 and 1941 on stolen Native American land that in 1868 had been ceded to the Lakota people in perpetuity, Mount Rushmore depicts next to the controversial Abraham Lincoln (who went down in whitewashed American historiography as “the black man’s president”, as abolitionist Frederick Douglas eulogized him after his death, but is viewed by many Black historians as a white supremacist at heart), two slave owners (Washington and Jefferson) and the unapologetic imperialist Theodore “Rough Rider” Roosevelt, father of the infamous Roosevelt Corollary of 1906 that gave the US the right to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American countries (the wording of which did not even try to hide Uncle Sam’s imperialist agenda, as Roosevelt uses the unambiguous term “international police power.”
Commander-in-chief or war criminal?
With so many American spaces large and small, outdoors and indoors, peppered with tacky iconography depicting the nation’s past and present presidents, I fail to see the need for a non-haptic celebration of the American head of state and supreme military commander in the form of Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday established by the war criminal Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon on February 21, 1971, two years after he had secretly begun carpet-bombing Cambodia and a month before he and his National Security Advisor, the notoriously hawkish Henry Kissinger, would aid the Pakistani military’s genocide against secessionist Bengalis in the Bangladesh Liberation War.
American intellectual Noam Chomsky wrote in 1992 that every US president since the Second World War deserved to be indicted for war crimes, a statement one could easily extend to all successive presidents since then, including the current one who in his mere 13 months as commander-in-chief has already racked up an impressive tally of civilian deaths in Syria and Afghanistan at the hands of US forces under his command.
But instead of being held accountable by the international criminal justice system, war criminals like both Bush presidents and Obama, Trump, and Biden are awarded federally sanctioned days of homage in the form of Presidents’ Day and the bipartisan feel-good pageantry that is Inauguration Day, a quadrennial initiation rite for future imperial mass murderers.
Commemorating killers on Veterans Day
Next to Commander-in-Chief Day, you have a holiday that pays tribute to the veteran, a former soldier of varying adult age, a near holy figure in popular American lore, but in reality, often scraping at the bottom of society’s barrel.
This particularly applies to the veteran who has been badly injured on one of America’s many and exclusively foreign battlefields, upon which his or her “services” are then no longer required (“Thank you for your service” is a well-known euphemizing idiom in everyday American English in the context of the US military as if the service provided were akin to a salesperson guiding you toward the organic fruits section of your local supermarket).
More often than not, that veteran, who is predominantly recruited from the ranks of the working-class (in fact, all of America’s wars have been fought by the working-class, as no other segment of society would be desperate enough to join the military where one’s sole job is to be willing to kill or get killed), is discarded like a pair of old shoes, left alone with their PTSD and economic poverty.
In the absence of tangible government support, the veteran is awarded symbolic accolades by way of Veterans Day: in a land where universal healthcare is considered both a communist conspiracy and an infringement on individual freedom, that doesn’t exactly pay the invalid’s exorbitantly high medical bills. Thus ensues the life-altering realization of having been hoodwinked by Uncle Sam, a Eureka-moment when many former foot soldiers begin to see the error of their ways, some disillusioned veterans even going on to becoming whistleblowers and anti-war campaigners.
The fact that with the Department of Veterans Affairs the US has a cabinet-level executive branch department solely dedicated to former soldiers is as telling of the elevated status warfare has within American society as the name “Department of Defense” belies the history of a government entity that should have kept the more honest name of its predecessor, the Department of War, and which in 2015 was the world’s largest employer, according to a Statista infographic published in Forbes magazine that year. Not the US’, mind you, the world’s.
“War is man at his lowest”
“Soldaten sind Mörder” is a famous saying by Kurt Tucholsky, one of Germany’s most prominent writers from the time of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933): soldiers are murderers. This would make Memorial Day the other official holiday of American mass murderer worship: while Veterans Day glorifies former soldiers in uniform who are still alive, the former exclusively pays homage to those who died in America’s countless imperial wars in foreign lands turned battlefields.
Vietnam veteran, ex-wrestler and former Minnesota governor-turned political commentator Jesse Ventura said it best when decrying America’s infatuation with warfare and deconstructing the popular image of the American “war hero”:
“I’m so tired of this war culture in America where they’re pumping your brains for people to believe the only heroes are heroes that go out and kill people. That makes you a hero? Let me tell you something: War is man at his lowest. That’s man performing at his lowest, not his best. There are no heroes in war. Heroes save lives, they don’t take them.”
If there ever was a more convincing plea to rid America of its plethora of federal holidays that glorify the organized violence committed in bad faith by its men and women in uniform and those who command them, then this is it.