Historian David W. Blight described the day:
African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.
But can we say that Memorial Days since then have offered the same blessing? Or must we admit that war, for whatever reasons we justify it, and whatever good may somehow be recovered out of the ashes, no longer serves such noble purposes as the preservation of our union or the abolition of slavery, but in fact usually has unforeseen consequences that only make the world less safe and future wars more likely?
Since the Civil War, we have had to add to the lists of our war dead those of many other wars, plus countless “minor” conflicts. Looking at a timeline of official US wars and conflicts, since 1812 our military has only gone undeployed for longer than two years a handful of times, and for longer than 3 years only once, from 1935-39. From a trumped-up war with Spain (over what was later proven to be an accident) that gave us control of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines (where we put down independence fighters and installed our own governor), and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, to over a century of incursions into Latin America to protect our exploitative commercial interests, to the atrocities of Vietnam and Iraq, how much less guilty of imperialism, colonialism, militarism, and international law-breaking are we compared to the Soviet Union, China or more recent enemies Iran, Iraq and ISIS?
Despite some earlier wars that were at least largely fought for noble causes (our own Revolution, World War II), it seems we have devolved now into fighting only for “American interests,” which are almost always economic, and often in violation of other countries’ national sovereignty. We have overthrown duly elected governments, used the CIA for illegal interventions, and imposed sanctions to punish civilians in mass numbers (our sanctions on Iraq during the Clinton years caused 1.5 million Iraqi deaths due to disease and malnutrition, including 600,000 children, a price declared “worth it” by Secretary of State Madeline Albright).
Not only that, but again and again the goal of protecting our interests and the (at least professed) goal of “making the world safe for democracy” and “spreading freedom” have not been successful, but instead have undermined both democracy and increased the threats to our interests (which, considered rationally, not only include economic prosperity but a world with less injustice, poverty, environmental degradation, forced migration and resentment of the USA). Our interventions in Latin America only increased the attractiveness of Marxist revolt, our support of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the USSR resulted in the rise of the Taliban, and our war in Iraq only destroyed a once-stable country and buffer against our newest enemy, Iran, as well as helping to birth ISIS.
On this Memorial Day, I will remember and mourn all those men and women, both brave and scared to death, who have lost their lives in our wars, not only those who gave their lives for our freedom or against slavery or tyrants, but most especially those who gave up their lives for causes proven later to have been ill-advised, or worse, based on greed, nativism, xenophobia and arrogance. Most of all, though, I will mourn that we have yet to learn the lessons about war that these dead men and women should have taught us.
P.S. Coming into work on Friday, I saw a large ad on the back of a semi that showed an erect, saluting soldier in full dress with a stars and stripes background, with the words, “Welcome Back to the High Life.” (Apparently it was for Miller Beer.) Is that what the United States is now – a big party while much of the rest of the world burns or starves? And is “the high life” the ultimate value for which our military fights now and our soldiers come home maimed in body, mind and spirit? Most of all, how long will we maintain our own “high life” at the cost of their lives?
A Brief History of US Military Conflicts Since the Civil War
The Spanish-American War followed the explosion of the USS Maine and loss of 266 American sailors in Havana harbor in 1898, later determined to be the result an accident in the boiler room of the ship. The term “yellow journalism” came to be applied to the whipping up of public furor over what many believed at the time to be Spanish sabotage. In all, nearly 3,300 U.S. servicemen would lose their lives in this war. It ended with the U.S. getting control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, and a permanent military base at Guantanamo Bay in a newly-independent Cuba. In the midst of the war with Spain, President McKinley’s young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, went beyond his orders and had the Navy take the Philippines (a Spanish colony), even volunteering for combat and gaining fame for leading his “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill. After allying with Filipino forces against the Spanish, we immediately allied with the Spanish to defeat the insurgents who’d been fighting for independence from Spain, preferring to install a U.S. “Governor” (future President Taft) and become the new colonial power in the Philippines, all the while saying all we wanted as to “prepare” the Filipinos for democracy).
Prior to that, we had sent the Marines to occupy two major cities in Nicaragua (1867), sent armed forces into Colombia (1873) and again to Nicaragua (1894, 1896, 1898 and 1899, just in that century) to “protect American interests”, and overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom (1893, apologized in 1993). In the early 20th Century, during what was known as the “Banana Wars,” we continued to protect our interests in Latin America, sending troops multiple times each to Colombia, Honduras, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Haiti, not to mention occupying Veracruz, Mexico for three years during the Pancho Villa “expedition.” Few soldiers lost their lives in these conflicts, but many “freedom-fighters” and civilians did, laying the foundations for decades of Cold War conflict in Latin America beginning in the 60’s and culminating in a decade of terror against civilians, Christian missionaries and lay catechists in Central America of during the Reagan presidency.
Then came the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars.” While many believed then and still do that we had no choice to enter the war, peace leaders like Jane Addams and hundreds of clergy, intellectuals, labor leaders and women’s movement members accused President Wilson of "sowing the seeds of militarism, raising up a military and naval caste."
In between the world wars, the U.S. continued to be militarily involved in Latin America on a regular basis, most notably the occupation of Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933. We also were busy in China, “protecting our interests” on at least a dozen occasions between 1920 and 1934.
Certainly the imperial ambitions of Japan, Germany and Italy were the immediate cause of the Second World War, but historians agree now that some of the blame lies with the victors of the first, who dealt with defeated Germany harshly and unjustly. However, after a huge victory for the Allies and the forces of democracy, the U.S. and the Soviet Union fell into a decades-long “Cold War,” which can actually be traced back to the sending of U.S. troops to Soviet Russia in 1918, to assist the anti-Bolshevik (and also anti-democratic) White forces in their civil war.
The Cold War in turn led to the "Korean Conflict" and Vietnam, the latter ending in humiliation and bitter national division between supporters and opponents. The “Vietnam Syndrome” kept us largely out of foreign conflicts for a few years, but by 1980 the Iranian hostage crisis and Ronald Reagan had again turned national sentiment toward “flexing our muscle,” and we saw troops sent to the Middle East, Libya, Grenada and Panama, as well as military advisors and support to several countries in Latin America and Africa. The Iran-Contra affair finally exposed our unofficial and unsanctioned-by-Congress “low-intensity warfare” in Central America throughout Reagan’s terms, but by that time we were turning to our latest enemy, Saddam Hussein. The Gulf War in 1991 was preceded by the beginning of harsh economic sanctions against Iraq, which lasted through the entire Clinton presidency, resulting in the deaths due to disease and malnutrition of over 1.5 million Iraqis, including 600,000 children, a price declared “worth it” by Secretary of State Madeline Albright.
Ultimately and perhaps inevitably, President George W. Bush went in to “finish the job” his father had failed to complete and invaded Iraq with “shock and awe” bombardment of cities, and “boots on the ground” in the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who carried out their mission with the latest weaponry (including depleted uranium, which is still poisoning Iraq’s environment and people to this day) and a fierceness that resulted in not only 4,487 dead on the US side, but anywhere from 160,000 to over half a million Iraqi civilians. Moreover, over 32,000 servicemen and women were wounded, and an estimated one in three came back less than whole, including huge numbers suffering from PTSD or dealing with lost limbs or other physical and mental traumas.
Today we are focused on ISIS and the war on terror, though perhaps “Iraq Syndrome” will temporarily keep us from sending many soldiers to fight. Instead, President Obama has relied on a “drone strategy” of remote targeted killings of terrorists, with unreported but suspected high numbers of civilian casualties and resulting anger toward the U.S.