Obama’s Funeral Oration

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So long as there are empires and so long as these empires make war, the speeches their leaders make on days of national remembrance will always be measured against the oration delivered by Pericles (Pericles Funeral Oration) in 430 B.C.E. and famously recorded by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War toward the close of the fifth century B.C.E. The occasion was the end of the first year of a particularly bloody year of fighting in what turned out to be a twenty-five year conflict. Measured against Pericles’ speech, Obama’s was a masterpiece.

By this standard, the challenge for any memorial day orator is not so much to honor the fallen combatants, the bare minimum. Rather it is to persuade listeners that it was their deaths on the field of battle that made everything else—the BBQs, the Memorial Day Sales Events, the Baseball games, the family reunions—I mean everything else possible.

“We remember that the blessings we enjoy as Americans came at a dear cost; that our very presence here today, as free people in a free society, bears testimony to their enduring legacy.”

More than this, and more importantly, the challenge is to both mourn the loss and urge continuing sacrifice.

“Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must. We must honor it in our own lives by holding their memories close to our hearts, and heeding the example they set.”

The question that haunts me and I would urge all of us to consider is whether or not Pericles and Obama are right, not in a trivial or superficial sense, but in a deeper sense. I will not enumerate here all of the raw materials—and not only petroleum—upon which our entire way of life depends. We marvel at the democratic (or quasi-democratic) upheavals tumbling out of the Middle East. We are saddened by the civil strife in west Africa. We are disturbed by the want and oppression elsewhere in the world, both in the west and in the east, both in the north, but mostly in the south. But we often overlook the cruel dialectic that is at play in these events.

As the world’s lone hegemon, the U.S. and its corporations are mindful of how little is the mineral wealth that lies beneath continental North America and therefore how dependent we are on the wealth that lies elsewhere. We are also mindful of how costly it is to create and maintain political and legal conditions that make the extraction, transportation, and processing of these natural resources profitable for investors worldwide. These political and legal conditions do not appear out of thin air. Often nationals beyond the shores of North America, Western Europe, Japan and China feel that they should be able to enjoy the fruits of their own natural resources and some are even willing to fight to insure that their nations’ wealth is adequately protected from corporations that might not have their best interests foremost in their plans. Needless to say, most private corporations do not have the means to field their own armies and with such armies to create for themselves the political and legal conditions necessary to extract and export raw materials on their own. The costs would be prohibitive. (Think of the costs that corporations would have to pass on to consumers.)

And so North America’s private corporations, with our support, have settled upon an elegant solution. They have us pay our armed forces to create and maintain the global political and legal conditions that make the extraction and export of foreign wealth possible.

No one knew this better than Pericles himself, who, not many days after delivering his famous Funeral Oration, was to chide the Athenians:

“Your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honors.  You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to retreat is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe.”

Pericles knew only too well why generation after generation of Athenians had to sacrifice their sons and fathers. He knew that there was, in fact, a genuine threat to the Athenians’ way of life and that the only way to preserve that way of life was to maintain and expand Athens’ imperial practices. To seize the land and wealth of others “perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe.”

Which is why this Memorial Day I join with President Obama in mourning the loss of life of American servicemen and servicewomen everywhere, and I commend the President for faithfully following the example set by Pericles two and a half millennia ago. And yet I am also mindful that the violence, turmoil and want that encircles our globe is at least in part the consequence of my personal depredations, my insatiable appetite for petroleum, my bottomless desire for inexpensive commodities and my endless need for new electronic toys.

So, yes, I owe them a debt. And, yet, like all debt, this one too makes me very uneasy.