Heroic Sacrifices for Foolish Causes: Memorial Days Past and Present

There is a tragic consistency to Memorial Day year in and year out. Bereaved relatives visit gravesites of loved ones. Patriotic citizens wave flags and attend parades. Vote-seeking politicians wax eloquent about sacrifices made on behalf of freedom.

This year was no different. President George W. Bush visited Arlington Cemetery and issued the usual platitudes – seemingly heartfelt, but indistinguishable from the sentiments expressed by previous presidents on previous Memorial Days. He intoned: “Today, we gather to honor those who gave everything to preserve our way of life. The men and women we honor here served for liberty. They sacrificed for liberty. And in countless acts of courage, they died for liberty.”

Of course, in his view, this was never more so than today. President Bush added: “In a world where freedom is constantly under attack and in a world where our security is challenged, the joys of liberty are often purchased by the sacrifices of those who serve a cause greater than themselves. Today we mourn and remember all who have given their lives in the line of duty. Today we lift up our hearts especially those who’ve fallen in the past year.”

And mourn them we should, especially since virtually nothing President Bush – or any of his predecessors – said is true.

Courageous men and women have died. And most thought they were defending liberty and America. But only rarely have America’s wars had anything to do with the nation’s defense, let alone the promotion of liberty, here or abroad.

This is a tough message to present in America. Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College wrote for this Memorial Day: “In the history of the world, many good soldiers have died bravely and honorably for bad or unjust causes. Americans are fortunate in that we have been given a way of avoiding this situation by linking the sacrifice of our soldiers to the meaning of the nation.” Unfortunately, this linkage only makes the US government’s hypocrisy more glaring. For how many of America’s wars actually live up to “the glorious beginning and purpose of the nation” and “its founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence,” as Owens puts it. Like my friend and colleague David Henderson of the Naval Postgraduate School, I have trouble finding “the principles in that magnificent document that the US soldiers in Vietnam died for.” I have little more success when searching for the nation’s other conflicts.

The first official war of the American republic was the War of 1812. The US had defensible grounds for warring against Great Britain – the impressment of its sailors – but waited years after the most obvious casus belli to act. And the desire to conquer Canada seemed as important, if not more so, than the desire to defend US maritime rights.

The Mexican-American War was far worse. President James Knox Polk essentially provoked the conflict by sending US troops into disputed territory and then claiming that Mexico had committed aggression by attacking the force. Foremost in Polk’s mind was seizing Mexican territory, most notably the bulk of what currently constitutes California. In victory America took almost half of Mexico as spoils. Future Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee both expressed disquiet with US policy.

The Civil War began over union, not slavery, and it is hard to construct a moral argument for killing 620,000 people and wrecking much of the country to force disaffected countrymen to remain part of what should be a voluntary political compact. Then Col. Lee wrote: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union.” He added, however: “Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.” Horace Greeley offered much the same sentiment in the New York Tribune: “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.” America’s most ferocious conflict dashed those hopes.

The Spanish-American War was begun supposedly with humanitarian motives, to save the Cuban people from the depredations of the Spanish Empire, but ended with the greedy seizure of Spanish territory far-removed from the supposed casus belli. The US demanded the Philippines to gain a way-station to China and the Far East. Washington ended up employing anti-insurgency tactics as brutal as those used by the Spanish and killed an estimated 200,000 Filipinos who opposed substituting one colonial master for another. But the US gained its objective: control of the archipelago.

The early 20th century spawned numerous military deployments in Latin America, mostly to advance US economic interests. Liberty was rarely, if ever, on the minds of Washington policymakers. And no one, even a Washington politician, could seriously argue that countries like Haiti and Nicaragua, for instance, posed security threats, thereby justifying invasions, occupations, and interventions.

World War I was one of humanity’s greatest tragedies, an utterly unnecessary conflict desired by no serious statesman. The result was the slaughter of millions, wreck of constitutional liberties, destruction of social orders, and dissolution of countries across Europe. The horrid viruses of communism, fascism, and Nazism all were loosed by this war. The conflict concerned America not one whit, but President Woodrow Wilson, an authoritarian who draped himself in the mantle of liberalism, was determined to reshape the globe in his image. He took the nation into the imperial slugfest – on the side of the great colonial powers of Britain and France, the avaricious, dishonest Italian republic, the terrorist Serbian state, and what until a couple of months before had been the anti-Semitic despotism of the Tsar. The Central Powers had no better claim to represent truth and justice, of course, but this was no war for democracy let alone liberty.

World War II may have been the first necessary war for America. The prospect of either Nazi or Soviet domination of Eurasia would have created an extraordinarily hostile international environment for the US But the conflict was an outgrowth of the previous war, the unfinished business of the foolish Versailles Treaty, made possible only by America’s counterproductive intervention. Oddly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was most successful in provoking war with Japan, which posed the least threat to America. Only Adolf Hitler’s foolish decision to declare war on the US spared Roosevelt the embarrassment of having to fight Japan and not Germany.

If there was a justification for the Korean War, it was that the US had helped create the conditions leading to war – dividing the peninsula and refusing to provide heavy weapons to its client state in the south – and that a successful invasion by a Soviet ally during the Cold War could have had serious ramifications well beyond the two Koreas. But a war for liberty it was not: the Syngmen Rhee regime was dictatorial and slaughtered thousands of political prisoners to prevent their release by the advancing North Korean forces. True, Rhee still was not as murderous as the North’s Kim Il-Sung, but that is setting an extraordinarily low bar. No one could mistake Rhee for George Washington.

The Vietnam War provided a similar moral dilemma without the same extenuating circumstances. Indeed, the conflict provided a practical experiment in the claim that if a small nation anywhere fell to communism, the dominoes would topple all the way back to America. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos all collapsed and … precisely nothing happened. Fifteen years later the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union was dissolving, the Warsaw Pact was breaking apart, reformers had seized control of China, and Vietnam and Washington had begun the process of normalizing relations. So much for the claim that the Vietnam War was necessary to defend the US and free world.

The potpourri of succeeding conflicts was unnecessary on almost every measure. America’s brief and unhappy intervention in Lebanon landed US forces in the middle of a bitter civil war. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not threaten the US in 1990 or 2003. The latter conflict has empowered Iran. Invasions of Grenada and Panama, interventions in Haiti and Somalia, and bombing runs against the Bosnian Serbs and Yugoslavia were exercises in moral vanity. Haiti and Panama are nominally democratic, but remain corrupt, poor, violent, and misgoverned. Somalia has imploded. The Bosnian Serbs continue to resist incorporation in a multiethnic Bosnia. And the US presided over the mass ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Roma, Jews, and others in Kosovo after forcing Yugoslavia to yield control of the territory. Only the assault on Afghanistan can claim a serious justification – retaliation for hosting those who organized the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Of course, despite diminishing press coverage, the war in Iraq continues, even though it bears little resemblance to the goals originally set by the administration. Forget liberal democracy, protection of women’s rights, guarantees for religious minorities, recognition of Israel, an alliance against Iran, permanent bases for military operations in the region, and a model of the new American-dominated order in the region. Happily, paying off the Sunni tribes, combined with the near completion of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, has reduced the level of violence. But why Americans must die today to aid one Shiite faction against another one, both allied with Iran, is hard to understand. This war certainly has nothing to do with protecting either liberty or security.

So much for the president’s rhetoric. Again, there is cause to celebrate and even revere the painful sacrifices made by so many heroic men and women over the years up through today. But Memorial Day is a time to challenge feckless politicians for wasting that courage on dubious, even disreputable ends. Most of America’s wars have been unnecessary and imprudent. Some have been ostentatiously immoral. The best way to honor those who have sacrificed so much in the past would be to change America’s policy in the future.

President Bush concluded his Memorial Day remarks: “I am humbled by those who have made the ultimate sacrifice that allow a free civilization to endure and flourish. It only remains for us, the heirs of their legacy, to have the courage and the character to follow their lead – and to preserve America as the greatest nation on earth and the last best hope for mankind.”

But the best, and perhaps only, way to preserve this country and our republican institutions is to abandon the foreign policy of empire. The US has roughly 850 military facilities worldwide. American troops are stationed in some 130 countries, not counting Marine guards and military attaches at US embassies. Large numbers of troops are stationed in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, as well as afloat the world’s oceans.

In Iraq it’s not clear what the US is doing, other than ensuring the triumph of one Shia faction allied with Iran over another Shia faction allied with Iran. The task in Afghanistan, preventing the resurgence of forces which aided and abetted terrorist attacks on America, is more defensible but has been undermined by the Iraq debacle. Most of the other US personnel stationed overseas spend their time protecting prosperous and populous allies – Japan, South Korea, and more than a score of European states. The latter face no plausible enemies while all of them are well able to defend themselves. Yet while the ongoing Global Posture Review is reshuffling forces, even drawing down some garrisons, as in Korea, new postings are being created, such as the Africa Command (AFRICOM). Undoubtedly, new imperial adventures await and combat casualties portend.

More important, Washington is ever ready to use or threaten to use those forces. Politicians and policymakers breathe fire against Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela, among others. Nasty actors all, but confrontation with them would be variously imprudent, counterproductive, foolish, and dangerous. More wars of choice would fill up Arlington Cemetery and other graveyards and add more casualties to be commemorated at future Memorial Days. However, such conflicts would not make the world more free or America more secure.

The passing of another Memorial Day should lead to serious reflection. But not just on the heroic sacrifices upon which politicians routinely dwell. Americans should ponder the lies and deceptions used to justify most of America’s wars. Americans should consider the tragic disjunction between rhetoric and reality, the fact that most US conflicts wasted American lives for dubious causes. Americans should confront the often shockingly high price paid by the innocent peoples the US government claims to be saving. And Americans should challenge political leaders who insist on threatening new wars, having learned nothing from previous ones. Let this be the last year that politicians can win votes by violating the principles of liberty and security which they reflexively cite when initiating or advocating war.