It’s Memorial Day in America! Aside from being a three-day weekend, it is a holiday used as a template to honor the fallen soldiers of American wars. In this template, a militaristic undertone prevails. The mantra of “support the troops” is laced in with honoring the dead.
Supporting the troops, unfortunately, is inadvertently linked to supporing America’s interventionist wars abroad. Instead of using Memorial Day as a platform to stoke militaristic fervor, why not discuss the obvious way to support our troops; end the wars and bring them home.
It is tragic that some would use a day to honor dead soldiers as a platform to create new dead soldiers. We should honor the memory of our war dead, but not to push for more war. Many on the right use holidays like Memorial Day to stoke jingoism. They push for further military interventions abroad, using dead veterans as a prop to do so.
Rather than using the memory of our war dead as a tool for interventionism, we should honor the dead by committing to less war. A holiday such as Memorial Day isn’t a reminder of why war is good. It’s quite the opposite. In recent decades, the United States has involved its soldiers in questionable and disastrous wars. What lesson do we gain from their memory?
What lessons have we learned from our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan? Over 50,000 Americans died fighting in the Vietnam War. In Iraq, over 4,000 Americans were killed during the invasion and ensuing occupation. The war in Afghanistan has cost over 2,000 American lives. Tens of thousands more were wounded physically and psychologically.
America continues to expand its military actions abroad. These military campaigns, spanning seven countries in this decade alone, are excused to keep us safe and spread democracy. None of America’s recent wars have accomplished security or the spread of democracy however. We tell our soldiers this is why we fight, but outcomes speak louder than rhetoric.
Vietnam, of course, is the classic example. America fought for years against indigenous resistance in Vietnam to prop up a corrupt regime in South Vietnam. Defending the world from communism was paramount to protecting democracy, as the excuse went. In the end, none of those goals were accomplished. America withdrew from Vietnam, South Vietnam fell to the communists. Democracy was not defended. What lesson did we learn from our dead in Vietnam?
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was America’s 21st Century catastrophe. Aside from being illegal under international law, the invasion was justified under false pretenses. Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, was a terrible dictator, and was allied with Al Qaeda. Removing him would make America safer and spread democracy across the Middle East.
There were no weapons of mass destruction, Saddam was not tied to Al Qaeda, democracy did not spread, and America was not made safer. What lesson did we learn from our dead in Iraq?
What about Afghanistan? America’s longest running war has no end in sight. We cannot achieve “victory”, we can only stave off defeat. Osama Bin Laden was originally sheltered by the Taliban who ruled Afghanistan at the time. A response of some kind had to be made in the aftermath of 9/11.
George W. Bush however, refused to make a deal with the Taliban to get them to hand over the 9/11 mastermind. Meanwhile it took a decade to capture him, and he was no longer in Afghanistan when he was found. Our mission in Afghanistan has become merely to prop up the pro-US government based in Kabul. No progress on democracy, and the Taliban are nowhere near defeated. What lesson have we learn from our dead in Afghanistan?
Aside from our own war dead, many die in wars who are not fighting. What about the memory of those on the receiving end of our bullets and bombs? What lesson do we learn from the memory of the millions of those that have died in our interventions? America continues to sew war across the world. The ripple effects have extended for years, and continue to grow worse.
Iraq is a fractured chaos-state with ongoing sectarian violence, which has grown worse since the rise of ISIS. Iraq is far from the “model democracy” we intended for the region. The Iraqi people still suffer violence at the hands of a civil war and American bombs. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Iraq by US and coalition forces in the anti-ISIS campaign in Mosul. Terrorism and sectarian violence continue to claim many lives.
Afghanistan is still rife with civil war. America cannot outright defeat the Taliban, and now ISIS has gotten involved. America’s sole purpose is to hold the fragile Afghan government together. This has become an increasingly challenging task. Corruption and despotism are still strong in Afghanistan. Like Iraq, Afghanistan is a violent and divided country with little prospect of seeing peaceful days anytime soon.
In 2011, the US and its allies intervened in Libya. What began as a no-fly zone against the Libyan air force escalated into full-blown regime change against Muammar Ghadafi. The intent to establish a pro-US democracy has failed horribly. Libya is still in civil war, with two effective governments battling for supremacy based in Tripoli and Tobruk. Violence and war is the everyday reality of Libyan life. Many thousands of civilians have suffered and will continue to suffer.
American intervention in Syria has also taken quite a toll. While Syria is a more nuanced conflict, American strikes have claimed an untold amount of civilian lives. While civilians are also killed by Syrian troops, rebels, and Russian strikes, the US is equally culpable in Syria’s suffering.
America has escalated its presence in Syria, continuing to supply aid to jihadist rebel groups. America now has de-facto ground forces in Syria as well, supposedly to fight ISIS. Even more Americans are in harm’s way, for a war that has little to do with American security.
What do we learn from war, ultimately? How can we as a species kill so many of each other, cause so much pain and hatred, and never learn how to move on. How many soldiers need to die? How many soldiers need to be maimed and traumatized for life? How many parents need to bury their children? How many innocent civilians need to perish and suffer? How long will it be until we fight another war to achieve the peace we find so elusive?
What lessons should we learn this Memorial Day? Do we continue to use our fallen soldiers to argue for more war? Do we argue for more destruction and death? Or should we recognize that our war dead have become victims. Can we at last honor our dead by recognizing the horror of war and commit to ending it once and for all?
We should all pay respects to the dead, both soldiers and civilians. The best way to honor the memory of the fallen is by saving those still alive. How should we support our troops this Memorial Day? End the wars, bring them home.