Another Memorial Day, another holiday filled with politicians rhapsodizing about the valiant sacrifices of courageous military men and women. Freedom isn’t free, we are told, as high officials extol the armed services for protecting Americans’ liberties.
It sounds so glorious. Especially eloquent tend to be the chicken hawks and summer patriots who had "other priorities" when it was their turn to serve. While busy today sending the young off to die in endless wars, they wax elegiac in praising needless deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Korea, Lebanon, Somalia, Syria, Vietnam, and more.
War is a terrible constant of the human condition. It seems inevitable and sometimes is necessary. Indeed, America was born in war.
However, the great scandal of U.S. history is that so few of the nation’s conflicts were essential. For instance, the Mexican-American War was rank aggression which resulted in the seizure of half of Mexico. And that outcome was viewed as restrained at the time. After a brutal invasion, America’s most avaricious imperialists hoped to grab the entire country. "It is a gorgeous prospect, this annexation of all Mexico," proclaimed the New York Herald. "Like the Sabine virgins, she will soon learn to love her ravishers."
The Spanish-American War was no better. The Yellow Press, most notably the Heart and Pulitzer papers, concocted and inflated atrocity stories to generate war fever in Washington over Spanish rule in Cuba. The US was not threatened, but expansionists long had hoped to take the island. The McKinley administration sent a fleet and army to seize the Philippines as well. That was pure imperialism, to give America a way station to Asia. The Filipinos already had created a revolutionary army to fight the Spanish for independence, and unsurprisingly refused to accept US soldiers as imperial replacements. It took more than three years of vicious combat, highlighted by manifold slaughter and starvation, killing some 200,000 Filipinos, before America triumphed and became a true "salt water" colonial power.
Washington actively intervened throughout Latin America in the early 20th century. Still, America’s leaders appeared to respect George Washington’s advice about eschewing foreign entanglements in the old world, most notably Europe, which jumped into the abyss of World War I in 1914. The result was a continental abattoir, especially bloody on the Western front, with massed infantry attacks on fortified trenches.
Most Americans wanted to stay out of the contest between two imperial blocs. However, eastern and financial elites insisted on joining the Entente. Typically presented as the pro-democracy, antiwar bloc, it included Serbia, which employed assassination as state policy; France, the revanchist heir of two Emperor Napoleons; Russia, a notorious anti-Semitic despotism; Italy, which sold its military to the highest territorial bidder; and Belgium, the planet’s most barbaric colonial power. These were dubious alliance partners for Uncle Sam’s brave and pure legions.
Woodrow Wilson ran on a platform of staying out of the conflict. However, he was as egotistical as he was both racist and sanctimonious, and wanted to remake the world. He knew that required American participation in a war in which the US had no stake. So he insisted that Congress declare war on Germany to protect the purported right of American civilians to book passage on British passenger liners-which, like the famed Lusitania, were reserve cruisers of a belligerent power carrying munitions through a war zone. In fact, a secondary explosion of its ammunition-laden cargo sank the Lusitania. Wilson’s claim was nonsensical, but he got his war.
Alas, the peace he helped forge was a catastrophe. In early 1919 Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the allied command-in-chief, complained of the Versailles Treaty: "this is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years." And he was almost exactly right. World War II erupted in September 1939.
None of these overseas conflicts reflected grand moral principles or implicated vital security interests of America. They were wars of national choice, driven by beliefs in Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and hubristic Wilsonianism. Every time ambitious politicians misled and manipulated a patriotic but gullible population.
America could not easily escape the Second World War, being dragged in by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and Adolf Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war. However, driving Tokyo toward war with economic sanctions was unnecessary and foolish. America’s most serious security interest was preventing a single hostile power from dominating Eurasia. That was well beyond Japan’s capabilities. In 1941 the only candidates for such a role were Germany or the Soviet Union.
Most important, WWII was the unfinished business of the First World War. Had the US not enabled a complete Entente victory, a compromise peace was likely. The German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires likely would have survived. So, too, the Russian Empire or the liberal Russian republic, which emerged in March 1917. (The latter was overthrown in November by the Bolsheviks, who acknowledged the Russian people’s desperate war-weariness.) Then the devastating viruses of fascism, Nazism, and communism would not have been loosed upon the world.
The Korean War posed no direct threat to America. Rather, it resulted from a succession of careless and contradictory decisions by Washington: dividing the peninsula with the Soviets, putting an aggressive, irascible, authoritarian in charge of the US occupation zone, refusing to provide heavy weapons to the new Republic of Korea, and ostentatiously declaring that America would not defend the ROK. In any case, there was no need to fight China. Had Washington heeded warnings from Beijing, it could have halted allied forces short of the Yalu, preserving North Korea as a rump buffer state and obviating Chinese intervention in the conflict. The latter added three years to the terrible struggle.
The purposelessness of the Vietnam War was demonstrated by its end. America left, South Vietnam collapsed, the "dominoes" of Cambodia and Laos fell, and then … nothing happened. Thailand, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea were not conquered by revolutionaries, China, or the Soviet Union.
Rather, several of them became Asian "tigers" and took off economically. Vietnam and the PRC fell out and fought a short, bloody war. Hanoi soon sought to open official relations with America; now Vietnam cooperates militarily with India and confronts Beijing over disputed islands. Little more than 14 years after the last Americans were lifted off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon, the Berlin Wall was down. Soon the Warsaw Pact states were changing sides, the Soviet Union was dissolving, and China was reforming. The dominoes were falling-the other way. The 58,000 Americans who died were needlessly sacrificed by US officials who got almost everything about the war and its aftermath wrong.
Ronald Reagan belied his hawkish rhetoric by using the military only sparingly, but he foolishly sent American Marines into Lebanon’s multi-sided civil war; 241 died in the barracks bombing. After the end of the Cold War the Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump administrations fought a succession of wars of choice. Typically the causes were dubious at best and mindless at worst, but at least the casualties and other costs, American anyway, were modest by historical standards: Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Yemen.
Not so in Afghanistan and Iraq. In these two the US sacrificed thousands of American lives, left tens of thousands of Americans wounded, ravaged host nations, and wasted more than $6 trillion. (In Yemen and Libya the outsize and shameful number of foreign dead is the chief scandal.)
All of these were, and some continue to be, wars of choice. Other than backing local Afghan forces to destroy al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban, in retaliation for 9/11, none of them had any serious security justification. Preferences do not count as interests, let alone vital ones.
Worse, Washington’s interventions usually made Americans less safe. For instance, entry into the Korean conflict militarized the Cold War. The US dramatically increased expenditures on the armed services, maintained conscription for another quarter century, and turned a score of allies into defense dependents. The conflict also turned the PRC into an active, dangerous military enemy, even more hostile than the U.S.S.R. Not until Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China did the Sino-U.S. relationship moderate.
The Iraq War empowered Iran and spawned ISIS. The Libyan conflict spread weapons, encouraged jihadists, and attracted a half dozen nations, most American allies, onto competing sides. The ouster of Muammar Khadafy, who years before surrendered his missile and nuclear programs, discouraged North Korea and any future wannabe nuclear powers from yielding their nuclear weapons and trusting America.
All of these conflicts were also justified on humanitarian grounds, but war rarely is a humane instrument or has a beneficent impact. In America’s conflicts hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and millions were driven from their homes. Sectarian conflict was unleashed and fueled. Minority religious communities were destroyed and dispersed. In many cases US intervention expanded and prolonged combat.
Yet such arguments are rarely heard around Memorial Day. Faux patriots are legion in Washington, lauding veterans for protecting American liberties while treating those same military personnel as gambit pawns to be sacrificed in a global chess game. Men and now women who die and are maimed as a result are suffering from Uncle Sam’s inflated ambitions rather than for Americans’ liberties.
The most obvious villains are vainglorious wannabe field marshals who, like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, don’t believe there is much reason to have a fine military if they are not constantly using it. These same people care little about the cost imposed on others by American foreign policy since they believe "the price is worth it," as Albright said of a half million Iraqi babies dead from sanctions. But they argue that no one has to worry since, of course, they and their colleagues are uniquely suited to rule. As Albright explained, the US stands taller so it sees further, hence its unending string of foreign policy successes. Or maybe not.
Those who served in peace and war-including my father, nephew, uncle, former brother-in-law, and many friends and associates-deserve respect and appreciation. However, the knowledge that their courage and steadfastness was misused, and that many do not survive the misadventures into which they are sent, should cause us to redouble our efforts to hold accountable those who initiated, planned, and inaugurated one unnecessary, foolish, and costly war after another.
Memorial Day exists because so many Americans have died unnecessarily in multiple conflicts that should not have been fought. The cemeteries continue to fill as politicians play tough, treating real people like toy soldiers at play. Instead of sending around patriotic emails, putting flags in lawns, and mouthing nationalistic pieties, real patriots should insist on no more. No more American and foreign lives wasted in unnecessary military campaigns that leave the country less safe and free.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon Press).