Yesterday on Veteran’s Day I placed our American flag in its bracket at the front of our house, so it could wave all day in honor of the sacrifices our military men and women and their families have made throughout our history. I do this on every national holiday, but on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I do it with sadness.
Flying the flag on our military holidays is first and foremost a symbol of gratitude for those who have died, or been injured, or made homeless, or otherwise disregarded by a nation more anxious to glorify the generic soldier than to meet the needs of the real individual, or to question why we asked them to risk life and limb in the first place.
Flying the flag on our military holidays is for me also a reminder of waste, and a call to question why we think that war is an answer to any but the gravest provocation. The biggest throw-away line we hear on days like yesterday is how thankful we are to our armed forces “for keeping us free.”
War has made or kept us free precisely three times in our history. The first was the Revolutionary War, which made us an independent state, truly free from Great Britain. The second was our own Civil War, which freed the slaves. The third was World War II, which undoubtedly saved us from subjugation to cruel and foreign dictators.
Every other war or conflict our nation has engaged in has had little effect on our freedom. Most were needless; the rest either misguided or mishandled. Let’s do the roll call.
The war of 1812 was the consequence of bungled diplomacy. Great Britain, still smarting from the loss of her North American colonies, provoked us into an ill-advised conflict that was a stand-off at best. It gave us Andrew Jackson, but neither enhanced nor diminished our freedom.
The Mexican-American War in 1848 was largely provoked by our military forces in the contested territory south of the Nueces River in Texas. It followed inevitably from Mexico’s humiliating loss of Texas because of Santa Ana’s vainglorious folly at the Alamo and Goliad, as I’ve written previously. Mexico was certainly complicit, anxious to whip up its own nationalistic fervor, knowing full well it had little chance of winning. The war fulfilled our dreams of manifest destiny by extending the nation from sea to sea, but made us in no sense more free. Mexican citizens in the newly acquired territories who were promised the right to keep their land but had it taken from them anyway, in fact, suffered a loss of freedom.
The Civil War freed our nation from the scourge of slavery, and that is the one good thing to come of the war. Other than solidifying the concept of federal supremacy, little else can be reckoned as a positive consequence of that war, especially for the South which went into it with visions of gallantry, glory, and overconfidence, only to reap economic stagnation and resentment lasting a century.
The Spanish-American War was arguably the most trumped-up excuse for territorial acquisition (Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines) in our history – a war whipped up by the sensationalistic advocacy journalism of William Randolph Hearst. To be sure, the war was confounded by liberation struggles both on Cuba and in the Philippines for freedom from Spain, but the freedom of American citizens was never even threatened. Ironically, our victory in that war led to military action against freedom-fighters in the Philippines.
The ghastly waste of millions of lives in World War I in the name of nationalistic fervor that accomplished nothing but lay the seeds for World War II has been well documented many times over. Our involvement in that war was of marginal significance, and perhaps was unavoidable. Our freedom was never at stake, however. And revulsion to the war fed an isolationist tendency that left us woefully unprepared for World War II.
No reading of history can cast doubt that World War II was a conflict of true necessity. The horrors that unfolded in Europe provide a reasonable prognosis of what would have happened to us, had we been conquered by either Germany or Japan. I’ve often envied my parents’ generation, for having had a war they could feel was really necessary. I’ve never had that experience.
The Korean War came to us, not the other way around. It was precipitated by pompous leaders on both sides of the dividing line between North and South Korea, each wanting to reunify the country on their own terms. In coming to the defense of the South when the North invaded, we saved them from certain defeat and absorption into the regressive totalitarianism that North Korea has remained.
However, as David Halberstam documents in sad detail in The Coldest Winter, thousands of American lives were lost due to unpreparedness, poor leadership, lack of material support, and arrogance. 54,000 American soldiers had died by the time the cease-fire was signed in 1953. The South Koreans were free, the North Koreans were not, and no one was more or less free in the United States – just as they had been in 1950.
Vietnam, even more than Korea, was a civil war with anti-colonial overtones. Our leaders tried to sell it as a Cold War conflict, long after it was obviously something much more complicated and not anything that we understood very well. Nor did it have anything to do with keeping us free. When the North Vietnamese finally triumphed in 1975, it didn’t diminish our freedom in the slightest, though domestic controversy spawned by the conflict took a generation to abate. Vietnam, incidentally, then went to war with China, our supposed communist adversary.
The Persian Gulf War was justified as necessary to stop the spread of tyranny in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, the dictator we loved to hate, made it easy by invading Kuwait. As an elected official at the time, I actually got to vote on that war. The Newton MA Board of Aldermen on which I served debated a non-binding resolution on the use of force against Iraq. I voted with the majority against authorizing our government to go to war, in lieu of giving diplomacy more time to deal with Hussein’s aggression. In retrospect, more diplomacy probably would not have worked, but I’m still proud of that vote against the rush to war.
That vote at least presented a tough choice about the necessity of using force with arguable merits on both sides. Our invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the other hand, was nothing but an inexcusable vendetta by a President and his advisers bent on finishing a job they felt the President’s father had failed to do. Before it started, I told anyone who would listen that it would kill thousands of Iraqi’s and Americans (an underestimate as it turned out) and lead to nothing but ongoing civil and religious wars (which it has; though temporarily in abeyance, they will resume once we are gone for good.)
Now we are considering whether to ramp up yet another land war in Asia -- this time in Afghanistan, which poses no more security risk to us than Yemen, Somalia, or Saudi Arabia, amidst a culture we little understand, for a cause that remains obscure. Of course the Taliban are terrible, but they don’t affect our freedom. The body bags will keep coming home, though, as long as we send our military on a poorly-defined mission that they are essentially incapable of completing successfully while serving as targets in a population that considers them foreign occupiers.
We must maintain a strong military, in the event that another military state threatens us. But short of that, preservation of our freedom will have little to do with the exercise of military force. Threats to our freedom from terrorists must be countered by effective intelligence and the cooperation with other nations and agencies that make it possible. Internal threats to our freedom from those who would take away our Constitutional rights in the name of heightened security need to be met by renewed focus on our highest values, not our basest fears.
None of this should be interpreted as lack of respect for our military or a failure to appreciate what individual soldiers have done. When I fly the flag on Veterans Day, I mourn the lives lost or injured in every war, from 1812 to Vietnam, whether I thought the war necessary or not. I just wish I could raise the flag more often in memory of causes that were truly worthy of the price our veterans have paid.