On Memorial Day, we should honor those who are buried after dying in the country’s wars, but be a little more skeptical of the U.S. government actions that put them there. It is often said that they died for "freedom" or their "country," but more often they were needlessly put at risk by their government.
I learned on a trip to France that countries distort their history. The French had an official exhibit on World War II in the Arc of Triumph in Paris that did not mention the British, American, and Canadian liberation of France after D-Day. The display had only a big arrow ending at the beaches of Normandy and much information about the French resistance. An uninformed visitor might have mistakenly concluded that the French had liberated their own country from the Nazis. I was shocked at the French misrepresentation of their history.
A few years later, I learned on a trip to Canada that the United States is no exception to the distortion of history. I visited a fort in Toronto and learned from the guide that the fort had been used in one of the several U.S. invasions of Canada. U.S. tourists visiting the fort gave the guide quizzical looks because U.S. history textbooks don’t dwell on the repeatedly unsuccessful U.S. attempts to grab Canada. In fact, U.S. history books focus on British impressments of U.S. sailors as the cause of the unnecessary War of 1812, but leave out that the U.S. hawks’ desire to snatch Canada was also a major cause. Our history of that war also focuses on the burning of Washington by the British, but neglects to mention that the British torching of official buildings in Washington was in retaliation for a similar U.S. burning of Toronto.
Even Americans are a little nervous about the history of their Mexican, Indian, and Spanish-American Wars and they should be. In the Mexican War, it is generally recognized that President James Polk ordered the U.S. Army into a disputed area on the Texas-Mexican border, which provoked a Mexican attack. What is not acknowledged is that even before the Mexican attack, the U.S. Army initially blocked the Rio Grande River. Blockades are considered an international act of war.
In the Indian Wars, brutal ethnic cleansing was conducted to grab land. The villages of the weak were burned and the tribes slaughtered.
The Spanish-American War was ostensibly fought to liberate Cubans from Spanish rule, but instead resulted in the first U.S. colonial possessions and 200,000 Philippine deaths, some by very brutal U.S. military tactics.
The U.S. Civil War and World War II, however, have Holy Grail status in the American history books. Every schoolchild learns that the Civil War was fought to liberate the slaves, even though President Abraham Lincoln cared more about quashing the Southern rebellion than freeing slaves. In fact, the war, still the bloodiest in U.S. history, caused nearly a million casualties (3 percent of the U.S. population), but only nominally freed the slaves, leaving most of them working under the same squalid conditions for the same masters. Instead of resupplying Fort Sumter, which his military advisers had advised him to abandon and which he was fairly certain would ignite a war, Lincoln could have negotiated a settlement or simply divided the country himself and refused to return escaped slaves, thus severely undermining slavery in the South. Even in the wake of this cataclysmic war, blacks did not escape Jim Crow laws, an extension of slavery, until the 1960s. Yet such a bloody war for so little gain goes unquestioned.
Although more justified, even some aspects of World War II are questionable. Americans revel in the defeat of the diabolical Hitler, but don’t realize that the U.S. helped contribute both to Hitler’s rise (and World War II) and the Bolshevik revolution (and thus the later Cold War) by providing the military forces to tip World War I to the allies. After the allies won World War I, President Woodrow Wilson went along with harsh British- and French-imposed reparations against Germany in order to get his naïve and failed League of Nations scheme. He also demanded the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, paving the way for Hitler’s rise.
Wilson also provided aid to the Russian government as long as they fought in World War I against the Kaiser’s Germany. If the Russian government had pulled out of the war earlier, Vladimir Lenin wouldn’t have been able to ride the unpopular war to power.
Even before World War II officially started, the U.S. cut off Japanese oil and critical metal supplies, which precipitated their desperate attack on Pearl Harbor. In the Atlantic in 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt did his best to secretly provoke an all-out war with Hitler by helping the British attack German U-boats.
In the Korean and Vietnam Wars, tens of thousands of Americans were needlessly killed to prevent Communist control of strategically unimportant backwater nations. The economically decrepit Soviet Empire would have collapsed even faster if forced to pour resources into keeping Communist governments afloat in those far-flung areas.
Saddam Hussein probably had a better rationale for invading Kuwait in 1990 than the United States had for invading Iraq in 2003. Although certainly not a justification for such brutality, the Kuwaitis were drilling under Iraqi territory and extracting oil. When compared to the imaginary threats from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi connections to the 9/11 attacks, Saddam’s pique with Kuwait was at least real. Because much money can be made selling oil, Saddam would have sold Kuwaiti oil into the market with only modest increases in the world price even without the U.S. taking back Kuwait during Desert Storm. The second Iraq War has made a mess of the country and created a haven for terrorists.
America is a great nation, but most Americans don’t realize that the country has maintained a free political system and has grown into an economic powerhouse principally because the country was far away from most of the world’s conflicts. Unfortunately, after World War II, the United States regularly began to look for monsters to destroy overseas. The dangerous expansion of executive authority under the present Bush administration and prior recent presidents is a direct consequence of this near perpetual state of war.
On Memorial Day, Americans should revere the war dead but also ask hard questions of an assertive U.S. government that keeps running ill-advised wars, only creating more casualties to honor.