The serried ranks of graves at Arlington National Cemetery never fail to simultaneously impress and sadden. So many lives forfeited. So many families bereaved. So many communities disrupted. For what were so many and so much sacrificed?
Alas, only rarely for freedom, as preening politicians piously proclaim. That rhetoric is cheap is never more evident than during Memorial Day remembrances. Many of America’s wars were unnecessary. Some were terrible mistakes. A few even verged on the criminal.
To be sure, this is not the fault of the (usually) young lives lost. Many people rushed to the colors when called by the president. Others dutifully showed when directed by Selective Service. The overwhelming majority served bravely and well.
It is only natural when those who fought try to infuse their often unpleasant, dreary, and difficult service with something transcendent. Even more so those horrific moments seen as almost holy – Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War, Bastogne in World War II, Belleau Wood in World War I, and many other deadly landscapes in memory forever drenched in blood. These otherwise incomprehensible experiences require greatness of purpose to be assimilated, let alone understood.
This desire is reinforced by the family and friends of the fallen. To lose someone close, and do so for, well, nothing, intensifies the pain almost beyond measure. The belief that high ideals were served – after all, freedom isn’t free!, we are routinely reminded by those who enthusiastically send others off to war – at least might mitigate the searing pain caused by the absence of someone important from our lives.
And then there are the poseurs, the grifters, the mountebanks, the climbers, and, worst of all, the politicians. They demonstrate that, indeed, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, as remarked by British litterateur Samuel Johnson. Those hoping to profit, financially or politically, authored some of the finest rhapsodies to dead heroes in defending America the beautiful, the sublime, the unique, the exceptional. Military officers and government officials most responsible for sending men, and now women too, off to die for purposes not valuable, rational, or even intelligible, most desperately acclaim Arlington and its roughly 400,000 residents to be an American Valhalla, where the dead attain a form of immortality.
It is time for the American people to take back Memorial Day.
Those who served should be praised. Not, however, necessarily the causes on behalf of which they were sent. Indeed, Memorial Day should educate the living as much as honor the dead.
Americans should understand the true, and often huge, cost of war. The personal loss suffered by every individual and family is multiplied again and again by others who have suffered similarly. Moreover, the sacrifice is repeated in every new fight, which almost always lasts longer and causes more carnage than expected. Those who start America’s wars typically have no idea what they are setting in motion.
The horror suffered should remind us that not fighting is almost always the best choice. It is too easy to see history as predetermined and accept the claims of self-proclaimed "deciders" like George W. Bush, author of the Iraq debacle. Nothing is fixed.
Consider the Civil War, America’s worst conflict, with some 750,000 killed – the equivalent of eight million people today. Although the South seceded over slavery, the North went to war over union and originally intended to preserve "the peculiar institution" as well. How could anyone justify such carnage to force people to remain in a political organization which they wished to leave? As the death toll climbed inexorably, even some unionists realized that coercive nationalism exacted far too great a price. They admitted that they should have allowed their "erring sisters" to go in peace.
World War I was a moronic imperial slugfest which had nothing to do with America. The nominal casus belli for President Woodrow Wilson, who mixed arrogance, sanctimony, and vanity in equal proportions, was beyond stupid, to protect the right of Americans to book passage on British vessels – including armed reserve cruisers carrying munitions through a war zone. Obviously, the better way to save lives would have been for people to stay home until the conflict ended, but Wilson desired to reorder the world. U.S. intervention yielded an allied victory, which was wasted by the Versailles Treaty. In contrast, a compromise peace, likely without America’s intervention, would have avoided the territorial trading and plundering that set the stage for even more destructive and murderous World War II.
Having helped bring on that conflict, America was inexorably drawn into its terrible denouement. The possibility of a world in which Eurasia was dominated either by Adolf Hitler’s Germany or Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was grim indeed. However, Roosevelt’s debilitating economic sanctions on Japan, which spurred Tokyo to attack Pearl Harbor, spread America’s involvement to Asia. Ironically, bringing in Japan nearly thwarted his hope of entering the European war. Had Hitler not gratuitously declared war on America, Roosevelt would have found it well-nigh impossible to target Germany, the country he desired to fight.
The Korean War was an unnecessary misadventure, resulting from indecision over what to do with the Japanese colony of Korea at the end of World War II. Only after North Korea’s invasion did Washington rediscover its commitment to the peninsula, which never had been seen as vital, even by the Pentagon. At that point it was difficult for the US to abandon the South, since Washington had set up the circumstances which helped lead to war. America’s blundering attempt to "liberate" the North with a march to the Yalu river, added China and nearly three more years of horrific combat to the conflict.
The Vietnam War was another American debacle. Washington stepped into the shoes of the French, who failed badly in their attempt to reestablish their colony. America spent more money and sacrificed more lives, with the same disastrous result. Yet, contra the apocalyptic predictions of war-forever proponents, the geopolitical consequences were minuscule for America. In fact, the celebrated "domino theory" actually ran in reverse, with the communist governments not just falling but disappearing into history’s celebrated trash can.
Just 16 years after the humiliating airlift from the roof of the U.S. embassy, Mao Zedong died, reform came to China, the Soviet Union fell apart, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the Berlin Wall fell, Europe’s communist regimes dissipated, and the Third World went capitalist. Today, Vietnam still claims to be communist, but restored relations with America, fought a short war with Beijing, and moved toward the market. Which leaves only Cuba, Laos, and North Korea claiming to be communist true believers.
And then there were a multitude of smaller wars which were the result of ambition, arrogance, anger, aggression, and avarice. The War of 1812, designed more to seize Canada than redress maritime injustice. The Mexican-American War, with the not-much disguised objective of grabbing California and much more. The Spanish-American War, in which the Philippines was subjugated with the death of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who did not want to be part of the new American empire. Multiple Latin-American interventions, which highlighted the phenomenon of Yanqui Imperialism.
More recently have been the "endless wars" of the Middle East and Central Asia. Many people forget Ronald Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon’s civil war, tragic but irrelevant to America. It was a terrible mistake for Washington to ally with the nominal central government, which amounted to just another of a score of battling factions. Bombings of the US embassy and Marine Corps barracks drove the US home.
Recent misadventures have been much more costly. Afghanistan, with Americans finally leaving after two decades of attempting to impose centralized rule and Western governance. And the catastrophe of Iraq, when an administration lied to itself and the American people, triggered a sectarian conflict which killed hundreds of thousands, loosed the political demons of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State, and empowered Iran, against which Washington routinely threatens to ignite another war. Yet policymakers responsible for this debacle have never been held accountable. One of them is president today.
Some of Washington’s worst military involvements have been free of American casualties, and thus ironically added no new graves at Arlington. For instance, Yemen, where for six years and counting America aided the brutal absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia in its attempt to turn one of the world’s poorest nations into a satellite state. And Libya, still attempting to recover from a decade of on and off civil war, fueled by the Obama administration’s regime change operation fraudulently packaged as civilian protection.
Of course, it might seem almost sacrilegious to criticize the causes in which the deceased fought. However, the best way to honor heroes is to stop creating victims. Left unchanged, U.S. policy will add new dead to Arlington’s hallowed hills. It is time for Washington to learn from, and be held accountable for, its manifold mistakes.
Doing so won’t be easy. American foreign policy has become the domain of a small, aggressive priesthood which claims authority akin the divine right of kings. Perhaps the most exuberant exponent of this belief in unchallengeable authority from on-high is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who illustrated her philosophy with a spate of egotistical foreign policy absurdities.
In her view the American foreign policy elite stands taller and sees further into the future than people in other lands. Thus, it is only right that these Americans decide global policy, including when it is necessary to kill foreigners, babies included. Of course, the purpose of having a fine military is to use it – as often as Washington’s deciders deem necessary. Therefore, as Robert Kagan declared amid Washington’s latest presidential power transition, the increasingly antiwar public, an ignorant hoi polloi unfortunately grown weary, should obey their betters. These attitudes help explain America’s vastly inflated ambitions and ghastly policy failures in recent decades.
Memorial Day is a call to rescue the memory of those who died and protect the lives of those currently in uniform. It is their service, along with their underlying dedication, loyalty, devotion, and courage, that has been seized, misused, and even betrayed. The American people should insist that their leaders stop treating members of the armed forces as gambit pawns in a global chess game. There should be no more lives wasted – resulting in more dead buried at Arlington – in foolish, needless military misadventures which leave the American people less free and secure.
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).