Memorial Day 2017
Remembering the dead and maimed of our many wars is always a somber occasion. If our leaders – politicians, generals, business tycoons – had any wisdom, they would be content to remember. But that wisdom is lacking and so the Memorial Day speeches not only remember but also engage in lavish myth making about the reasons we were involved in all these wars. The myth is always more or less the same: we went to war in Europe, in South East Asia, in the Mideast, in Latin America in order to protect our freedoms and our democracy.
The wars we fought since 1940 were of different sorts. Not one of them was unquestionably inevitable in order to defend our freedoms.
What about World War II, you will say. Surely Nazi Germany was a threat to freedoms not only in Europe but perhaps also on our continent. While that is no doubt true, no Memorial Day speech will mention that World War II also saved the harsh dictatorship in the Soviet Union for another 40 odd years. World War II did not preserve the freedoms in Russia or in Eastern Europe satellite countries. Instead it preserved the brutality of Stalin's government and that of his successors.
The role of World War II in defense of American freedoms may be ambiguous. There is no such ambiguity about any of the wars we have been embroiled in since.
In Vietnam, as Martin Luther King explains in his Riverside Church speech of April 1967, the Vietnamese were defending their freedom against being colonized by the French and then by us. The eventual victory of the North Vietnamese did not deprive any Americans of their freedom to speak their mind, to assemble, to campaign for office and to vote. The Vietnamese were not a threat to our freedom. We were the threat to their freedom in that war.
“In his 1995 memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert McNamara– Secretary of Defense during much of that war – said he and his senior colleagues were "wrong, terribly wrong" to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn President Johnson around.” (Washinton Post, 7/7/2009)
The war in Iraq was justified in a number of different ways by the administration of Pres. George W Bush. First we were told that Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction." When that turned out to be a pure fabrication, we were told that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack of 9/11. That, of course, was also a lie. What was not mentioned as often was that the majority of the 9/11 attackers were born and raised in Saudi Arabia, still our firmest ally in that region. The justification of the attack on Iraq still remains to be given. Was it really just about controlling the oil?
The Memorial Day speeches do not usually mention that Saddam Hussein was our ally in the 1980s when he attacked Iran. We supported him then. Presumably that alliance was not a threat to our freedoms. How did Saddam Hussein become a threat to our political institutions in the few years between 1980 and 1991? The answer is not at all obvious.
President Obama was more forthcoming than many others when he explained repeatedly that we needed to send our troops to all four corners of the earth in order to maintain our position as the most powerful nation in the world.
But even that explanation for our continued war making is implausible. It is true that we have troops everywhere in the world. But it is also true that we have been loosing all the wars we have been involved in since World War II – except for the invasions of Grenada (by President Reagan) and of Panama (by the elder President Bush). We lost the Vietnam war. We have not managed to bring peace to Afghanistan after 16 years of fighting there. We have not brought peace to Iraq. We are not playing a dominant role in Syria. Our intervention in Libya has left that country in political chaos.
In its early days, Osama bin Laden's Al Quaeda was armed and supported by our government. Since then Islamist movements have spread, expanded and become more destructive in their terrorist attacks. They have not been defeated by the most powerful military in the world.
The "most powerful nation on earth" continues to be on the losing end of its wars. Not an impressive record.
We are still waiting for a plausible explanation for fighting all these wars and demanding all these sacrifices from Americans and from the peoples of many other countries.
In the end we need to admit that our leaders are victims of their own myth making. After telling the nation every year on Memorial Day that our military interventions were glorious defenses of freedom and democracy, it appears that they themselves have forgotten that this story is made up. It has no relation to reality. The loss and bitter pain our wars have inflicted on the families of its victims did not in any way safeguard our institutions. That story simply cannot be supported by what actually happened. The enemies we have fought in all these different wars in did not threaten our institutions to begin with. When we lost those wars we did not in any way secure our freedoms for future generations.
The losses imposed on so many American families by these wars only show that lies repeated often enough will finally confuse the liars. The victims of these lies are the families whose members died far from home and, more broadly, all the Americans whose health and welfare would have been so much better if we had not wasted trillions of dollars in needless wars.