The Memorial Day Message That Is Missing

05/25/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

This weekend, social media is filled with messages asking us to remember the Americans who have died defending our country and our freedom. Memorial Day, first established in 1866 to honor Union soldiers of the Civil War, is now a day set aside to remember all of the American soldiers who have died in war in the subsequent 15 decades -- about 1.2 million in all. This number, while representing a tremendous loss, pales in comparison to the number of war-related deaths globally for the same time period. Estimates run from 60 to 85 million for the number of lives lost during World War II alone.

Coincidentally, this past week, I finally had the chance to watch the movie The Imitation Game and finished reading Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The film portrays a number of issues, but one in particular still troubles me. [Spoiler alert:] After the German Enigma code was decrypted, the British made "strategic" life and death decisions about their own troops in order to avoid tipping off the Germans that their code had been cracked. In this way, the British could continue gathering key intelligence. While this intelligence is credited with shortening World War II by as much as two years, I find it difficult to understand how those in charge would intentionally ignore information that could have saved the lives of many of their own troops.

Fountain's book is also about war -- the one in Iraq, post 9/11. Without going into the details of the plot, the story vividly portrays the sharply divergent worlds of those who glorify war and those who are actually sent into combat. A particularly poignant passage comes when Billy Lynn's sister is trying to convince him not to return to Iraq after completing a somewhat farcical nationwide tour that both celebrated and exploited the heroes of his squad. She gives a long list of leaders and pundits who were promoting the war (including the president and vice president) and noted that all of them had somehow managed to avoid serving in Vietnam.

Admittedly, I am a pacifist and don't understand the reasons for our involvement in most conflicts since World War II. But this Memorial Day weekend, I wonder why instead of just remembering those lost in war, that we don't also start finding ways to avoid further deadly conflict in the future.

In his book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, author Christian Parenti refers to the "catastrophic convergence" of poverty, violence, and climate change. The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) completed a study in 2007 on climate change and national security, and a year ago this month, the CNA published a follow-up report entitled National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change. The Pentagon and State Department have also published detailed strategic reports regarding the impact of climate change on national security. Headlines from the past year include "Climate change threatens national security, Pentagon says", "Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers", and "Obama: Climate Change a Growing National Security Threat" (a claim that the President reiterated this past week). After Obama's comments in February this year, The New Republic followed with a piece entitled "Obama is Right: Climate Change Kills More People than Terrorism." In this, Rebecca Leber makes a case that around 5 million died due to climate-related factors or carbon pollution in 2010 and that this number will increase to close to 6 million by 2030. But I suppose this is irrelevant to military strategists since reports about war casualty numbers don't include the loss of life due to things like environmental pollution or natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, or other types of extreme storms.

The significance seems clear to me, however, when we overlay the impacts of climate change on top of a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, especially with respect to food and water security, and consider the disparate impacts of climate change on certain regions of the world that have a long history of conflict. To decode: we are looking at a rapidly growing risk for more global conflict. Ironically, the U.S. military is a huge consumer of fossil fuels -- one of the major sources of greenhouse gases that are destabilizing the climate. And following up on a 2001 report on Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic, the military is preparing for a joint training exercise (the "Northern Edge 2015") in June of this year in the Gulf of Alaska. Why do I get the sense that our national leadership, like the British in WWII, is choosing to deliberately disregard certain critical intelligence, risking some lives, in order to "succeed" in some larger goal?

During a commencement address at Rutgers University last weekend, Bill Nye said that the "oncoming trouble" of climate change will affect the graduates in "the same way the Second World War consumed people of [his] parent's generation." As we await the release of the Pope's Encyclical on climate change, Cardinal Peter Turkson recently spoke at an international conference on climate change hosted at the Vatican, calling on the wealthiest countries who have long benefited from fossil fuels, to be the ones to find solutions to deal with climate change:

[Wealthy nations] are obliged both to reduce their own carbon emissions and to help protect poorer countries from the disasters caused or exacerbated by the excesses of industrialization. -- Cardinal Peter Turkson

Last week, I was left troubled by both a movie and book about war. I remain disillusioned by war in general. Perhaps if the U.S. started exerting leadership in addressing climate change, and thus, working to lessen the chances for additional future conflict in the world, I would feel better listening to the all the messages -- especially from politicians -- honoring the dead over this holiday weekend.