It’s Memorial Day here in the USA. It’s one of two national holidays we have to remember the sacrifices made by our military, etc. It’s an excuse for BBQ cookouts, big, summer movies, mattress sales, and for companies to offer discounts to our veterans, because all these things are easier than working to make sure we stop making veterans.
Our country fetishizes its military to a very unhealthy degree. Publicly, we loudly and often praise them; it’s regarded as very unpatriotic not to do so, really. There are likely many reasons for this, including your basic machismo, the fact that we’ve never lost a really damaging war, and the fact that we came into existence via a war.
One of the ongoing memes that come up as a result of this, particularly around this time of year, and later in November for Veterans’ Day, is that the various soldiers we’ve sent off to war fought and died for our freedom. They kept us safe from tyranny, and made sure we can continue to live our lives as we please.
This is somewhat true, but there’s also a huge heap of bullshit here.
The American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Punitive Expedition, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Gulf War I, the Afghan War, and Gulf War II are the various wars I can think of off the top of my head. In addition to those, we invaded places like Russia, Panama, Grenada, and really much of Central America.
In the revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, we clearly were indeed fighting for our existence as a nation, and therefore, arguably, for our freedom. So the next time you see someone who is a combat veteran from any of those wars, do take the time to congratulate them for a: fighting for our freedom, and b: being alive. The Punitive Expedition was an adventure into Mexico to find and stop Pancho Villa, who had launched attacks against a small town in New Mexico. I guess we can chalk that one up as an effort to protect American freedom.
World War II is a bit iffy, surprisingly. Was our freedom as a nation in jeopardy? Probably not. Japan wanted land in Asia, and had they not attacked Pearl Harbor, we probably wouldn’t have gone to war with them. Having Americans die to protect China and the British Empire wouldn’t have sat well with the public. As for Hitler…that’s a bit more dicey. He probably would have been content to have a little empire in central Europe and western Russia, especially if he could have had access to the gas and oil in Romania and the Caucuses. Not a good thing for the untermenchen who lived in those places, but, it must be said, not a direct threat to our freedoms. But I’ll give this one a pass as a fight for freedom in general.
But the other wars? The Mexican-American War was a land-grab, pure and simple. We did pay Mexico for the land we took, to be fair, and they offered us more, which we refused because we didn’t want to have to deal with expanding slavery. The Indian Wars were clearly a land-grab, too (and certainly not about preserving freedom for the Indians), as was the Spanish-American War, which was blatantly about trying to create something akin to an empire (akin to, because without an emperor, it’s hard to have an empire). These were not wars that were waged to protect American freedoms, or indeed, to protect freedom as a concept.
World War I was fought because, as Captain Edmund Blackadder once famously observed, it was easier than not having a war. We were officially neutral for most of the war, but realistically, we were in it up to our eyeballs fairly early on. The war itself was complicated and messy and was actually about a great many issues, like Serbian nationalism, UK/German rivalry, Japan’s desire to have a European-style empire, etc, none of which had anything to do with the United States, and none of which were about protecting freedom here or abroad. We could have kept our noses out of that one, and the war would likely have rolled to an unpleasant end sometime in 1919, instead of 1918.
The Korean War and the Vietnam War were also not even remotely about protecting our freedoms, and only barely about protecting the freedoms of the people in those countries, many of whom weren’t especially fond of the USA, and wanted the freedom to establish their own governments without our interference. These were wars that were all about appearing tough before the Soviet Union who, arguably, were also not a threat to our freedoms. They were never going to invade the USA, and weren’t likely to go nuclear at any point, given the concept of MAD. In fact, we could have let them run roughshod over the entire world, aside from the USA, and we likely would have been just fine, given our resources. I’m not saying we should have done that; standing up to them and not allowing the spread of Stalinist-style government was probably a good thing, but we could have done that.
Gulf War I and Gulf War II were about oil. Let’s not even pretend otherwise. Had Saddam invaded, say, Iran, like he did in the 1980s when he was our little pet, we wouldn’t have cared less, despite the fact that Iran is, at least mostly, a democracy and Kuwait certainly isn’t. But Kuwait has oil, as does Saudi Arabia, and we didn’t really want to have to deal with having a new person run the store. So we went to war. The second Gulf War was also about revenge, since as George W pointed out, Saddam had tried to have W’s father, George HW Bush, assassinated. 100,000+ dead Iraqi civilians later, and I guess we have revenge for someone nearly having an attempt on their life. Does Iraq have more freedom? Possibly. Did it affect our levels of freedom even slightly? No.
The Afghan War is a bit more tricky. Clearly, no, it wasn’t really a fight for our freedoms. In fact, I’d argue we lost some freedoms (TSA and NSA, anyone?), and we certainly stained our honor by becoming a nation that used torture. But had we not invaded Afghanistan, our country would have ticked along just fine, only with several thousand not-dead soldiers and several billion dollars richer.
That said, I still think it was a good thing to do. We did actually bring freedom to large parts of the country, and ending the Taliban’s stranglehold wasn’t a bad thing. It’s just a pity we screwed up the peace so royally.
As for the various invasions of Russia (it was in the 1900s, and part of our effort to keep the tsar, a man who was rigidly opposed to freedom, in power), Grenada, Panama, and other places in South and Central America, please. Not even one of those invasions was even slightly about protecting freedom for anyone, much less Americans.
Our combat soldiers do a tough and unpleasant job, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that they are, in general, in our various wars and military adventures and police actions, actually defending the freedom of anyone, much less those of us at home.