It is Veterans Day today, which brings up the question of how to honor veterans of America’s various wars responsibly and honorably. I submit that the most sincere honor is paid by resolving not to allow our political leaders to get us involved in wars in which servicepeople are asked to give their lives in vain or for a less than honorable cause.
The United States has gone in for three-day-weekend holidays of late, shifting holidays around to make it possible to take larger blocks of time off work. Few of us who work complain too much about this, but something is lost in the process. By making holidays little more than a reason to take a day off rather than a day to remember signal events or people in out history, we make the occasions less concrete, more abstract or virtual. Yet the sacrifices America’s veterans have been asked to make during this Century of Total War (as the French thinker Raymond Aron titled one of his wiser books) have been anything but abstract or virtual. Even those who survived bear some scars.
ENDING THE GREAT WAR
So let us remember today that it was at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 that leaders of the warring parties met to sign an agreement to end what was then called the Great War, an incredibly bloody conflict that changed forever the face of civilization as we thought we understood it.
It was the first war that involved not just those who fought battles in distant lands but demanded the mobilization of virtually the entire society in the service of a state apparatus that grew exponentially in power and authority during the war and never receded to its prewar size after the war was over and the United States tried to "return to normalcy.”
That was supposed to be the War to End All Wars, the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy. But normalcy didn’t return. A bitter peace without reconciliation helped to bring one of the most brutal dictators and mass murderers known to history to power in Germany and in two decades another, even more brutal war ensued. The Great War had to be renamed World War I and Armistice Day had to give way to Veterans Day.
CONFLICT WITHOUT END
Through those bloody conflicts, the ensuing Cold War and the more active conflicts that followed in Korea and Vietnam, American military people served with bravery, distinction and valor. Those who set the policies and determined the objectives may not always have been wise. Indeed, it’s not difficult to argue that those asked to carry out those policies were in some senses duped or that they made sacrifices in vain.
But those who were asked to risk their lives and to give their lives were for the most part brave and honorable men and women and deserve our respect.
We can best honor them in the unsettled world that has followed the death of communism and the end of the Cold War by remembering that those who are asked to carry out directives in foreign land and subject themselves to the risk of death and devastation are not pawns on a global chessboard but flesh-and-blood Americansour sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, fathers and mothers.
For their sake, let us make sure that our political leaders commit their skills and lives with prudence and wisdom, in strict accordance with the U.S. Constitution, rather than in questionable endeavors.
HUMILIATION OR HONOR IN GREECE?
President Clinton was forced to postpone and shorten a planned trip to Greece this week. The original plan was to begin a three-day visit this coming Saturday. But anti-American demonstrations and plans for more caused the Greek government to request a postponement that the American government agreed to in part because there was at least mild concern about the president’s safety.
The Associated Press story spun the news as "a major humiliation for Greece’s Socialist government.” Time Daily noted that the incident could raise security concerns that might harm tourism and/or attendance at the 2004 Olympics slated to be held in Athens.
This spin strikes me as about 180 degrees off. Why should a government be humiliated because it declines to indulge in a brutal crackdown on its own citizens expressing (although apparently violently in some instances) what seems to be a majority viewpoint in Greece (and a rather sensible one at that) for the convenience of a visiting potentate?
Media people often engage in pro forma criticism of totalitarian countries like China when they round up dissidents and either detain them or ship them to the countryside in advance. But they seldom go so far as to refuse to participate in the trip or to do anything other than fawn over the government once the crackdown is a fait accompli.
The brutal NATO-American was against Yugoslavia and Kosovo was unpopular in Greece and although Greece is a NATO member the Greek government came very close to opposing it officially. In what was apparently a popular move, the Greek government almost declined to allow American and NATO troops to use Greek territory to facilitate the foreign occupation of Kosovo.
If anything, the Greek government should be honored for declining to engage in totalitarian tactics against its own population.
PAYING THE PRICE OF EMPIRE
It would be more helpful if more people in the media and elsewhere recognized the incident as an embarrassment to the US government and a small part of the price of empire. Any government that engages in imperial adventures should not be surprised to discover that not everybody in the world will love it for its displays of Alpha Male domination. A few days of protests in the cradle of democracy, in fact, amounts to a trivial cost imposed as compared to the death and destruction dealt by American planes over Kosovo and Yugoslavia.
The protests and the embarrassment, however, will have little effect unless they are recognized as part of the cost of empire building and maintenance.
President Clinton himself seemed little concerned about the matter, making jokes about how the media would have something to cover. The sad aspect is that it will probably be some innocent American tourist, traveler or businessperson who will end up paying, perhaps with embarrassment, perhaps with injury, perhaps with something far worse.
OTHER IMPERIAL EMBARRASSMENTS
There are other costs of empire that are seldom overtly recognized as such. One recent news story told of the embarrassment and frustration faced by foreign police in occupied Kosovo. It seems there is little settled law in Kosovo, partly because the foreign police view the post-1989 Yugoslav laws as discriminatory against Albanians, so they don’t want to enforce them. And few judges are available.
Among the consequences are difficulty enforcing mundane rules like parking ordinances and the eventual release of up to 90 percent of those arrested. That in turn makes it difficult to recruit more foreign cops to come in.
The best bet would be to remove all foreign cops and the NATO occupation forces from Kosovo, of course. But that would be too sensible.
It might be helpful, however, to note and point out repeatedly that these discomforts and embarrassments are virtually inevitable when a country, alliance or international organization embarks on what is essentially an imperialist mission of conquest and colonization. If law enforcement officers considering "serving” in Kosovo have second thoughts and political leaders are at least mildly embarrassed by the chaos and manifest failure to establish anything resembling a civil society in Kosovo, maybe the answer is to cease the imperialist mission and resolve not to take on any more such neocolonial missions.
TIMORESE RESISTANCE TO EMPIRE
The United Nations is facing similar embarrassment in East Timor. According to the Irish Times Mario Carrascalao, a vice president of the National Council for Timorese Resistance and the East Timorese point man in talks with the World Bank, has accused the United Nations of acting like a dictator. "I speak of dictatorship because it is rule by decree,” he said.
Leandro Isaac, the second senior East Timorese leader after Nobel Prize winner Gusamao, was more specific, perhaps because his own house has been raided by UN troops three times. "This is exactly the same as the TNI [Indonesian occupation army] over the last 24 years.
The question is why anybody should be surprised that people who fought for 24 years to be free of Indonesian domination would be anything other than resentful at the prospect of having their country occupied militarily and run by decree by forces that are, if anything, more foreign than the Indonesian troops that have oppressed them. The UN expects to run East Timor for at least three years. Is it any wonder most East Timorese still feel as if they are being treated as a colony?
Again, it might be helpful to think of this deep-seated resentment (which just might blaze forth in violence, subversion or clandestine murders in the night) as part of the price of empire. If you colonize a territory that thought it was shedding colonial status, you should expect resentment and resistance.
The question should be whether political leaders want to continue to pay these high costs of empire. But as long as they can continue to recruit soldiers and mercenaries to do the dirty work on the groundand pay the actual, concrete costswhy should they worry? They can continue to entertain the illusion that they are benefactors rather than imperialist dictators.