Twice a year, on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, the airwaves and ‘teh Interweebs’ ring with homages to those who have served. It is fitting to remember those, especially, who gave their lives in the defense of their homes and families.
But do we remember that far more often than not in America’s history, that’s not what really happened? I would argue America has only fought three ‘existential’ wars, where national survival and/or character were at stake: the Revolution, the War of 1812 (AKA the Revolution, phase II), and the War Between the States. This, of course, runs counter to every mainstream historical view out there, but I’m anything but alone in questioning the necessity and/or prudence of most the far-flung conflicts in which we’ve become involved.
Take World War I, for instance–the experience which spawned Veteran’s Day as a commemoration. Most scholars agree the events of 1914 were a tragic, careless tripping of dominoes that had been set in place over the preceding decades. It was national pride and foolishness more than any true defensive necessity, that contrived to turn all of Europe into a slaughterhouse. The bigger question on this side of the pond should be “why on Earth did the U.S. ever get involved?” Consider: In November 1916, Woodrow Wilson narrowly won reelection in no small part on the platform “he kept us out of war.” Five months later, the same man asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers, and marshaled a huge propaganda apparatus to overcome the natural American neutrality which his own campaign had just played to!
What had changed? Had Huns landed in the Hamptons? Were Austrians besieging Annapolis? No, the reality was that America’s ‘neutrality’ had been anything but. With a substantial stake in the Allied Powers’ ability to win and repay their debts, it was almost inevitable that Doughboys would follow dollars into the hell of the Western Front. When Germany made the fateful decision to counter American assistance to the Allies by unleashing the subs yet again, the U.S. found a plausible casus belli.
And what did this intervention accomplish? Reinvigorated by the entrance of the US as an “Associated Power,” the war-weary Allies ditched all thought of finding a settlement, and instead exacted humiliating revenge and post-war starvation upon Germany. Once embroiled in Europe, the U.S. and its associates took a post-war detour into Russia, intervening just enough in the Russian Civil War to ensure lasting mistrust of the West, but not enough to keep the murderous Bolsheviks from consolidating power. Thus were seeds of both the Second World War and the Cold War sown.
My point is simply this: more often than not, war, as Smedley Butler put it, “is a racket.” The high-sounding ideals which sell the public on support for the war often bear only the loosest of relations to the actual reasons for which the leadership of various nations contend. Sometimes they bear no relation to the truth. And tragically for America, virtually all of the sacrifices made by her citizens have been in wars of choice, not of necessity.
It is good that the recent call to arms over Syria foundered… but don’t think that hasn’t stopped the powers that be from looking for another rallying cry to distract from the growing consequences of their mismanagement and graft at home. For Veteran’s Day, let’s not remember dress uniforms, parades and crisp formations. Let’s remember what happens to those formations when they’re thrown into the man-made hell of war… and what becomes of those they leave behind.
Then let us not pick our battles, but instead only accept such cost when it is thrust upon us with no alternative. THAT is the appropriate way to remember the fallen… by learning the lessons of history.
Not by repeating them.