As Memorial Day approaches, my thoughts – as they often do – turn not just to those who served, but to those whom they served – the rulers, the masters of war. For let's get it straight – people in uniform work for their superiors, and those work for their superiors, right up the line until you get to the president. “The people” are not in the chain of command, and neither are “the American way of life”, “our security”, or “our freedoms”, except by the most strained chain of ill-reasoning. Now, of course, one can argue that the commander-in-chief, i.e. president, is a servant of the people, but this is a fiction as well, as shown by the infrequency with which any president (not only the current one) acts in accordance with the will or general sense of the citizenry. We have devolved into a state of adversarial government, where the authorities commonly act against the common good, and since the military are on the side of the government and not the people, we can expect no less from that quarter, even though the military are made up of countless specimens of “the people” (as is the bureaucracy, for that matter).
We have a military that is – and I have no problem with this – under strict civilian control, and anyone who attempts to compromise this arrangement is dealt with most severely. The notion, popular in the 1960s, that the military was somehow “in charge” has, I think, been thoroughly debunked. They are servants; powerful, yes – lethal, yes – but nonetheless servants, and at the beck and call of their civilian superiors. Any wishful thinking as to “if only” we would let the military loose upon the world with no civilian oversight can be countered by looking at countries where the military really is in control; the results are typically not good. Eventually the people who clamored for the military to take over from a corrupt, inefficient bureaucracy are clamoring for civilian authorities to, once again, exert control over the military. We have, at least, in this country avoided this particularly destructive cycle.
Having said that, the relationship between the military and civilian society is, let's say, ambivalent. Those in uniform are expected to serve the interests of the nation, and their welfare is supposed to be subordinate to the welfare of the country, and of society in general. They are not expected to be the “drivers” of foreign policy. And yet they are used (I would say victimized in many cases) to achieve political and propaganda ends, and this holds true especially in time of war, and even more so in time of what Pat Buchanan calls “unnecessary war”. And of all the lame excuses, evasions, memes, and verbal tics that come pouring forth from the mouths of our rulers at this time of year, the most deceptive and pernicious is the notion that we must, at all costs (to both mind and body, not to mention pocketbook), keep those already slain in battle from having “died in vain”. This has been a rationale, in recent memory, for “surges”, “doubling down”, and other exercises designed to snatch further defeat from the jaws of defeat, and with its companion idea, to not “cut and run”, has served to pile iniquity upon iniquity in what is euphemistically referred to as our “foreign policy”, but which is, in fact, shameless empire-building and serving the interests of the armaments makers and various powerful political groups and “allies”.
But what is it, after all, to “die in vain”? Is it to die in a battle that is lost? Or a war that is lost? The pragmatist will say yes, but then proceed to allow that even a losing battle might accomplish something “in the long run”. Does losing a war accomplish anything? Perhaps only to offer an opportunity for soul-searching, but this doesn't seem to be a very productive exercise since we are always eager to return to the fray and start yet another war. Defeat in World War II turned both Germany and Japan into relatively pacifist nations; our defeat in Vietnam only made us hunker down and await the next opportunity, which presented itself dramatically on 9/11. Because, you see, our mission is never-ending. There are always damsels in distress who need saving – AKA nations that need the blessings of “democracy”. And the world always needs to be rid of mustachioed villains, AKA “terrorists”.
And then, of course, we have ourselves, and we are not allowed to sleep well at night until every conceivable existential threat to our existence is eliminated, and this seems, in our time, to include pretty much any adherent to Islam. (The rise of militant Islam came along just in the nick of time, saving us from more than a few years of boring, enervating peace.) In this, we share the world view of Israel, which – unlike ourselves – really is under an existential threat, although one can argue that they brought it on themselves, by setting up shop in the worst possible place on earth to do so. (And no, the State of Israel did not have to be established in western Palestine; even the Zionists of old had other plans that could have been implemented, or at least tried. The Holy Land doesn't belong to them any more than it belongs to Christians or Moslems, hence the endless feuding over that very small patch of the Earth's surface.)
But if dying in a losing war is dying in vain, we still have a pretty good record. The soldiers of the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War did not die in vain, because we won those wars. The soldiers of the Confederacy clearly died in vain, but those of the Union did not. Otherwise, right up until at least the Korean War we can make this claim (that war being fought, basically, to a draw). Of course, no one wants to think too much about the fate of Eastern Europe after World War II; after all, didn't we fight the Axis in order to make all of Europe free? But Papa Joe had to have his pound of flesh, and there were any number of communist moles in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to give it to him, not the least of whom was Alger Hiss, who was “outed” by Richard Nixon. And, technically, we got to occupy or claim victory in pretty much all the territories that we had personally taken from the Nazis and their allies. Our army and that of the Soviets came face to face, shook hands, and then sat down to be occupiers for two generations (at least – given that we still have troops in Germany and Italy). And the line where the two armies met morphed into the Iron Curtain, with Berlin standing as an odd enclave within communist territory.
But then we had Vietnam, and the lingering ambivalences, denials, and neuroses connected with that debacle. There is no sense in trying to pretty it up – we lost, we were defeated and humiliated – the American giant was brought low by little yellow devils. And we still haven't come fully to terms with this, any more than the South has come to terms with losing the War Between the States. And as to the argument that “the military didn't lose the war, the politicians did” -- well, it was the politicians who sent the military over there in the first place, after all. Don't they have a right to change their mind? Aren't we constantly turning enemies into friends (and vice versa)? Doesn't civilian relativism always trump military absolutism? Plus, communism by that time had seen better days; it wouldn't be long before Nixon would go to China. In our time, about all that's left is North Korea; even Cuba is being opened up, now that our boycott which served to prop up the Castro regime for all these years is being eased.
But even in the case of Vietnam, from which (I believe) we withdrew not based on any rational considerations of principle, or politics, or even economics, but simply because we were overcome with the gross immorality and absurdity of the whole affair... even in that case an argument could be made that, despite their victory, the communists realized that they had paid a great price, one that they could ill afford to pay again. And sure enough, there were no major military engagements of communism vs. America from that time on. It wasn't so much that we “buried” communism (to use Khrushchev's term) but that it simply devolved – which it continues to do (except on American college campuses, where it still survives in pristine form).
And now we have Iraq and Afghanistan, and in those cases “it ain't over 'til it's over”, as the saying goes. We invaded, we conquered (allegedly), and yet we continue to fight. We withdrew (or so it's claimed) from Iraq, but now we're back – kind of. It may make perfect political sense (politics being, after all, the art of acting on trends and public opinion, rather than principle), but it must be terribly frustrating for the military. Not a day goes by but what someone (mostly on “talk radio”) doesn't complain that ISIS, or some other nasty outfit, has now taken over cities and territories that Americans “fought and died for”. So did they die in vain? Apparently they did, unless we go back in and “finish the job”, whatever on earth that might entail. But when that is the only argument left, it's a good sign that we're in trouble – not just as a society but as an empire. We are brought down as much by our ambivalences as by military reality (the Vietnam argument again). This is the flip side of being an ideational society, rather than a more typical ravenous, conquering, unabashed empire-building society like the great invaders of old. We like to think we're going into places for all the right reasons, but then once we're there we start to wonder – was it worth it? Is it really “mission accomplished”? (And if so, what exactly was the mission, since what we said we were doing is not how it turned out.)
But that's not the whole story. Winning may be the goal of military operations, but “is that all there is?” to quote Peggy Lee. There is also the concept of just war, and this is about as familiar and honored a concept in our time as Natural Law; its only defender is the Catholic Church (by which I mean the doctrine thereof, not individual Catholics, so many of whom have quaffed deeply of Neocon Kool-Aid). And when you go back and look at our military history according to that criterion, rather than the more simplistic idea of simply “winning”, things change – a lot. I won't go into the details of Just War doctrine here; it's easy enough to look up. But my impression, from what I know of this concept, is that very few of the wars America has fought can unambiguously be termed “just”. It would certainly not describe the Mexican War, for example... nor the Spanish-American War... nor World War I. And when it comes to World War II, which Buchanan terms “the unnecessary war”, nearly everyone will object that of course we had to stop Hitler, etc. But the rise of National Socialism in Germany was a direct result of Germany's defeat in World War I, and if that war was unnecessary and unjust – well, you see where this is going. It's been argued that World Wars I and II were really the same war, with a 20-odd year truce in the middle. So by that criterion, the whole affair was unnecessary. On the other hand, if you take World War I and its outcome as a given, then World War II starts to look more necessary. It's a matter of where – at what point in history – you want to start applying moral principles.
In any case, Vietnam was, it seems to me, the first war we fought where a significant portion of the populace came to regard it as unnecessary and wrong (and not just because of the draft – we had the draft in all previous wars as well). It sort of threw off the cloak of America as the savior of the world, and exposed blind militarism and absurdity, not to mention hidden agendas. (This, by the way, was, in my opinion, a major contributor to the high incidence of PTSD among Vietnam veterans. They simply couldn't cope with the yawning gap between the propaganda and the reality – between their beliefs and values and what they were forced to do.)
But in this sense, Vietnam also served as a precursor to Iraq and Afghanistan – it desensitized us, in a way, to any feeling that war must have a rationale that makes sense to the average citizen... that it must be consistent with our traditional values. In this sense, it was the reductio ad absurdum of many of the ideas which had lain dormant in our national mystique. And many people realized that there was something seriously wrong, but they had a hard time figuring out what, exactly – which made us vulnerable to the next great temptation, namely militant Islam and the “War on Terror”.
So – to return to those who served – is it possible to serve honorably in an unjust war? Can it be said that those who served, and died, died in vain, even if we won? A victory may conceal, at least for a while, the moral damage... the destruction to the American psyche... but a price will be paid eventually. And that price will include a general demoralization, a loss of vision, a coarsening... and eventually a kind of despair. What are we, after all, if not an empire? Is simply being a country not good enough? Apparently not. And yet how many other nations in our time are afflicted with this disease – this discontent? How many other empires remain? We hear rumblings from Russia and China, but they are pikers in the empire biz compared to us.
Some will say, it's enough that a soldier obeyed orders, did his duty, and fought for what he thought was right. And it's true enough that, as I said in a previous post, a soldier cannot, and should not, be expected to be a moral philosopher. And yet, don't our politicians, when visiting overseas, avoid military cemeteries in Germany and Japan they way they would avoid the plague, or a radioactive dump site? And yet didn't those buried there obey orders, do their duty, and fight for what they thought was right? We're even ambivalent about Confederate monuments in our own country. (There's one right in the middle of the main street in Alexandria, Virginia, just down the road from Washington, DC.)
I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do, or how to feel, on Memorial Day or any other day – only to suggest that there is a bigger picture... one that we, as Americans, should not shun or neglect. We need to acknowledge that ideas – bad as well as good – have consequences. We also need to see that when the country is ruled by an elite that cares not for the beliefs and opinions of the people, and cares little for the welfare of the troops and veterans, that something is seriously amiss. My only plea is that we “support the troops” by bringing them home from the killing grounds where they toil not for America and its people but for powerful interests and their political puppets... and that we honor the dead by doing all we can to prevent future follies of the same sort that caused them to die.