Sunday, June 5, 2011

Memorial Day

It is fitting for us to remember all the soldiers who died in foreign wars, as well as the parents who survived their children, the spouses left behind, and the children who grow up orphaned.

But let us, for heavens sake, stop saying that they died for our freedom. For that is a big untruth designed to deceive ourselves about the causes of our wars.

The reasons for going to war in Iraq have always been unclear. First it was the weapons of mass destruction, then, for a while, the government claimed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. Finally they settled on saying that we were fighting for democracy in Iraq. A lot of people think it was all about oil and the global control of natural resources. No one has ever believed that the regime of Saddam Hussein, however murderous in Iraq, was a threat to American liberties. 

The Taliban we are fighting in Afghanistan may burn down schools for girls. But in the US more women graduate from high school and college than men. The Taliban are no threat to our freedoms.

The war in Vietnam, obviously, was not about American liberties. We lost that war but that did not change or restrict our liberties. It is unclear that the war in Korea enhanced traditional American freedoms. If anything, we lost them for a while to the home grown authoritarianism of the McCarthy period when freedom of speech and opinion was under serious threat.

But, you say, surely World War II was a fight against authoritarianism! Well, it was a fight with an authoritarian country—the Soviet Union-- as our ally against another country that was also authoritarian.

The roots of World War II lay in the settlement of World War I. Germany was forced to pay large reparations to the allies after World War I. Savings by German citizens and profits of their industries were not available for investment because they had to be paid to the Allies as reparations. German capitalists were short of investment capital. American industries rushed in because there was a lot of money to be made. Major US industries invested heavily in Germany's rearmament. Standard Oil of New Jersey built factories in Germany to produce synthetic gasoline – an essential requirement for a modern army. IBM let the Germans use ther punch card technology to, among other things, produce lists of all the Jewish citizens in Germany. General Motors and Ford built cars, trucks and later tanks for the German army.

The 1918 Treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans to have an army. But when Hitler came to power in 1933, he openly rejected that prohibition and began to build a new army. France, Britain and the United States, the victors in the First World War, did nothing. The reason? The Nazi movement was from the very beginning ardently anti-Communist. And Americans in the 1930s followed the same principle that our foreign policy still follows slavishly: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. The new National-Socialist government in Germany may have been repressive and fanatically anti-Semitic but if they were against the Soviets and Soviet communism we didn't care what else they were doing.

That was just like supporting Osama bin Laden when he was fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan or supporting Saddam Hussein when he was fighting Iran.

When Adolf Hitler came to power, we not only overlooked the requirements of the Versailles treaty, major American corporations could not wait to support the new regime and to help them build what was in fact an illegal military force. We were not concerned that German fascism was a threat to the liberties of other European countries. We were certainly not concerned about our own liberties. We were making plenty of money and developing a force against the communism we were so afraid of.

But then in 1940, Germany conquered most of Europe with lightning speed. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Germany supported them by declaring war on the US. All of a sudden American power, American ability to invest all over the globe were under threat from all sides. Our preeminent position in the world of diplomacy, in the world of global business and our wealth were under attack.

We bolstered German militarization because there was money to be made. We joined the war against Germany when that ability came under threat. If World War II was fought for freedom, it was primarily the freedom of the largest American corporations to make money wherever it felt like.

This is a harsh thing to say. The loss of young men and women is always sad. It is comforting to think that they died for a good cause. But think of all the other people who died in World War II: millions of Russians, millions of German civilians who died in the carpet bombing of German cities, large numbers of Britons fallen victims to German bombing. Think of the millions of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals who died in German concentration camps. They did not die for freedom. They fell victim to senseless violence supported by frantic greed.

The terrible truth is that the destruction of war does not serve noble purposes.