Flag flying holidays bring out social media posts and op. ed. columns that honor members of the armed forces, past and present, as they well should. But some go beyond to ascribe to them the very foundation of our freedoms. The implication is that our constitutional republic owes its existence to armed forces, and all our armed conflicts, including today’s, have been and are in defense of our freedom. It’s a romantic ideal common in the histories of all nations. The warrior cult of death in battle has been celebrated as the ultimate form of heroic manhood in every culture for thousands of years. For me, it raises a number of questions. If military service wasn’t glorified as something heroic, would anyone join up? How does a war lord society differ from a rule of law society? Are the written word, and the public debates leading to it, less important than military might in establishing American freedoms? Would the nation fall but for an aggressive military presence in the world? How many of our wars and major armed conflicts have actually defended the nation against an imminent danger?
Scanning the record, I came up with 97 named American wars and major conflicts. Don’t hold me to the exact number. I could be off by a few. Of these, 39 (40%) were named wars of Indian eradication clearing the way for (white) settlers to live in peace. They were wars of conquest and subjugation that, in a sense, could be considered in defense of freedoms for certain Americans at the expense of other Americans. Without them, few Western movies would have a plot, but as it is, they make the Indians savage, women and children innocent, and the cavalry heroic. It’s part of the American myth.
What about wars of more patriotic and honorable intent?
The War of Independence (1775-1783) defended the united colonies’ right to secede from Britain, and form their own government as an independent democratic republic. What sometimes gets lost in the story telling is that securing American liberties first required defining what they were, then to establish a philosophical foundation for national rules of law that would emerge as our Constitution. The Revolutionary War helped make it possible, but was not its foundation. Moreover, the Continental Army may have been the most reluctant band of soldiers in the nation’s history.
The War of 1812 was in defense of American rights on the sea, and of its territory. Washington, Baltimore and other coastal towns were sacked, and a rough attempt was made to invade from the south.
America’s Civil War (1861-1865) was a brutal test of whether the United States could remain united, and whether slavery could be tolerated in a land of constitutional freedoms declaring the equality of all. In defense of those freedoms, the North won and the states were reunited. Slavery was abolished, at least in name. The door was opened for a greater realization of equality for all that would take another hundred years of slow, violent progress to become the law of the land. Sadly, the full fruits of that progress have yet to ripen.
The Great War, WWI, was not in defense of the United States as a nation, although American shipping was attacked at sea. It was to a greater extent in defense of democracy itself, and the right of Europe to be free of national expansion by armed conquest, after centuries where that was the norm. Perhaps without intention it also challenged the legitimacy of European global empire, but that’s not a subject for this column.
WWII was in defense of our nation, and of the principles of freedom that democracy declares is the right of all persons in every nation. As Studs Terkel wrote, it was “The Good War”(1984), fought for all the right reasons that make “just war” a reality. It produced the only “Greatest Generation” we’ve ever recognized.
Korea is a question mark. The U.S. was not under attack, and South Korea was not an important ally. But international Russian Communism was intent on undermining democracy everywhere, including in America. The Iron Curtain had fallen across Eastern Europe. Mao’s revolution had won in China. If the flood could be stopped in Korea, it could be stopped elsewhere too. It ended in a stalemate, but it also stalemated the spread of Russian Communism in other places, with a few notable exceptions.
That’s a total of five wars out of 97 that have been directly related to the defense of the United States and its freedoms. What about the others? Several put down domestic insurrections during the early years of the republic. Many were in defense of commercial ventures unrelated to American territory or values. Some, such as the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, were wars of conquest. The Spanish-American War of 1898 had little justification, but it moved the U.S., as an emerging major power, into the realm of global empire. For various and cloudy reasons, we interceded in numerous conflicts in the Pacific, Asia and Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. Caribbean and Central American conflicts were mostly to set up puppet governments allowing American banana and sugar interests to do business as they pleased in those places – hence the name “banana republic.”
Major conflicts in the current era such as Vietnam, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, to name a few, have a variety of legitimate and illegitimate justifications, none of which are directly related to imminent threats to American territory or values. Sure, but what about 9/11, one might ask? Those attacks were carried out by mostly Saudi Arabian extremists, a nation we continue to support as a valued ally. Veterans of wars in our era have honorably and courageously served their country, and they deserve the nation’s gratitude and support. Gratitude they get on each flag flying holiday. Support has been more problematic, and that’s shamefully tragic. Having said that, they are not being sacrificed to protect our freedoms, as some proclaim every time they get a chance. They are being sacrificed in the interests of power, ego, and commercial gain, and that too is shamefully tragic. Parenthetically, to be sacrificed is to be made sacred, or holy, which is not what we’re doing to our young men and women who serve in the military, but again that’s for another time.
My conservative friends will not, and cannot, appreciate my take on the history of our wars. Some will be mildly offended. Some will be enraged. They have too much invested in their conviction of the virtue of our military and war as primary lynchpins guaranteeing our freedoms, and of veterans as our most patriotic and heroic citizens. For them, to think otherwise is disrespectful, unpatriotic, and they’ll have none of it.