Sunday, June 12, 2011

“What are we fighting for...?”

In an earlier blog, I expressed my distress at the Memorial day cliché that our war dead died for freedom.

Wars are a terrible scourge. There is no prospect of reducing the number and the destructiveness of wars as long as we refuse to admit to ourselves why they happen.

The large series of Indian wars we've fought all during the 19th century were over control of territory.

The Spanish-American war added a great deal of territory to our country and made us masters of the Philippines for many years. 

If you travel all up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States, every town, large or small, has its civil war monument. More likely than not it bears as an inscription a line from the Roman poet Horace “It is sweet and honorable to die for one's fatherland.” What fatherland did all of the Confederate soldiers die for? Is it sweet and honorable to die in defense of slavery?

World War I began when Germany built a large navy to threaten the British Empire. We had shared power with the British in the world and therefore entered on that side. World War II began when Japan in the East and Germany in the West threatened our power and the freedom of American corporations to invest and make profits all over the world. The wars in Korea and Vietnam were power struggles with the Soviet Union, our World War II ally, once more a struggle over American access to raw materials and investment opportunities.

Wars are fought over power, and wealth. We should not pretend that freedom is the issue.

We take pride in our democracy. But we do not always understand that in a democratic country the decision to go to war is, supposedly, a decision of the entire people. In a democracy, every citizen bears responsibility for war. In a democracy every citizen bears responsibility for every soldier or civilian killed or maimed.

On Memorial Day in a democracy citizens should not just honor the dead, but ask their forgiveness for having caused them to die.

Instead, it is easier and more comfortable to pretend that these deaths have been “sweet and honorable” or to have been “in defense of freedom.”

Often, of course, nations are manipulated into going to war. During World War I Pres. Woodrow Wilson was elected on the promise to keep America out of the war. In 1917 a large contingent of American soldiers entered that war in France. Before World War II Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected on the promise that no American soldier would fight in the Second World War. The reality turned out quite different. Governments are not above manufacturing “incidents” in order to whip up enthusiasm for a war. Pres. Lyndon Johnson faked the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” in order to get support in Congress for the continuation of the Vietnam War.

The war against Iraq was never declared by Congress. Our elected representatives passed a resolution asserting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and and was involved in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center – both falsehoods – and authorized the president to do whatever he saw fit. They clearly abdicated their constitutional responsibility to declare war.

But if democracy means anything, it surely means that ordinary citizens have a responsibility for the major decisions of the government and going to war is always a major decision. As American citizens we bear responsibility for the death and destruction we have brought to Iraq and Afghanistan and we bear responsibility for the Americans who died or were injured in those wars.

We bear that responsibility whether we were asked to participate in this decision or not. We bear that responsibility whether the government lied to us about the prospects and causes of war. If they tell us that our soldiers are defending our freedoms, while the planners of war are actually thinking about global control of natural resources, it is our duty as citizens to look for the truth.

If we are talking about war as a defense of freedom, when wars are fought over global resource conflicts, or over the power of American corporations to make money wherever they please, we conspire in our own deception, we conspire in the degradation of our democracy. 

We are acting against the cause of freedom.