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“War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”
President John F. Kennedy
“Our troops are, of course, human and vulnerable and imperfect. We don’t help them when we put them on pedestals, give them flags to hold in the breeze, and salute them as icons of a feel-good brand of patriotism. Talk of warrior-heroes is worse than cheap: it enables our state of permanent war, elevates the Pentagon, ennobles the national security state, and silences dissent.”
William J. Astore (USAF Lt. COL retired)
We have many myths in this country.
One is that we owe our freedom to military veterans. On patriotic holidays we eulogize the veterans who were sacrificed to allegedly defend freedom, keep us safe, and protect our way of life. Implied in this message is that our many wars were necessary and justified. But our many wars have not been about defending freedom or the noble causes ascribed to them. As long as we continue to believe and promote this myth we will have endless wars and an endless stream of dead and wounded coming back from unnecessary wars.
Unfortunately, many people buy into this militaristic propaganda. Most politicians – even liberals – have to repeat the mantra to prevent being branded unpatriotic. As long as the media, veterans groups, politicians, and everyone else endlessly repeats this myth we will never learn from our past mistakes. We will never overcome our deeply ingrained culture of violence and militarism. We must stop repeating this false narrative and put respect for military service into proper perspective.
In our zeal to honor military service we have created a cult of hero worship that is not good for veterans or the country. This leads to glorification of war and gives legitimacy to violence and militarism. We tell ourselves that we are the “good guys” and we fight wars to achieve peace, promote democracy, and “save” others from dictators. But the history of our many wars, and militarized foreign policy, prove this narrative is inaccurate and misleading.
One finds no noble defense of ideals in the history of the Mexican American War in 1846 or the Spanish American War in 1898. Both were about seizing territory and securing commercial markets. The wars in Korea and Vietnam, plus the numerous military actions and proxy wars intended to contain communism, did nothing to advance freedom or democracy. Vietnam never represented any real threat to our freedom or our way of life.
Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have certainly not enhanced our freedom as citizens.
With every one of these wars executive power has increased at the expense of the legislative branch. Our Bill of Rights’ freedoms have been diminished. Now undeclared wars, electronic surveillance, searches without probable cause, no fly lists, torture, detention without charges, and even targeted assassination are openly done by our government. Endless war does not make us safer, more secure, or more free. Our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has done more to promote terrorist groups than to defeat them.
Even the sacred American Revolution had little to do with defending freedom. We have been taught that the American Revolution freed us from English “tyranny.” But the primary issues were taxes and regulating commerce.
Colonists at the time actually paid less in taxes than people in England but the demagogues, as today, turned paying taxes into “tyranny.”
In the end this founding war resulted in INDEPENDENCE from England but did not establish or enhance freedom for most people.
Most people’s lives continued largely unchanged except for the hardships resulting from the human and economic costs of the war.
Certainly the freedom and political rights of women, slaves, indentured servants, native Americans, and most of the small farmers and laborers were not improved by the war.
The English legal system and laws used in the colonies continued in use after the war. Slavery continued. Women being the property of their husbands continued. Voting was still restricted to property owners.
The Bill of Rights – the basis of all our freedoms – was not adopted until December of 1791 eight years after the treaty ending the war was signed.
For more than 200 years many people have been denied the rights and liberties expressed in our founding documents. So obviously the American Revolution did not bring us “liberty and justice for all.”
The truth is the hard work of actually making our society more free, just, and safe has been done by social, economic and political activists – not soldiers and wars.
It was activists who created, expanded and defended our civil and political rights. These battles were fought in the courts, legislatures and streets – not foreign battlefields.
It is the abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights activists, labor organizers, peace marchers and social justice workers who have struggled to make “freedom” a reality in America (often with modest success).
There were many reformers who applied justice and equality under the law to voting, housing, employment, the justice system, civil rights and many other practical aspects of a truly free society.
Veterans or the military did not lead or contribute to these struggles. In fact, the military has often been the instrument to suppress democracy, lawful dissent, and the many struggles for social justice and a better America.
I do not denigrate the sacrifice of combat veterans. They should be remembered. They have suffered. Our troops, and their families, are victims of war the same as the “enemy” and the many civilian casualties we callously call “collateral damage.”
But these memories should motivate us to say, “never again” rather than promoting the next war with false platitudes. Their sacrifice should motivate us to stay out or senseless, no-win wars.
We need to be honest with ourselves about our history and the real reasons for our many wars. We have been lied to by the recruiters, politicians, and war profiteers.
The real purpose for putting veterans on pedestals is to maintain recruiting goals and to keep the money flowing to the defense industries. We only deceive ourselves when we buy into, and repeat, the false platitudes.
We can appropriately honor those who died serving our country without honoring war.
Then we can foster the attitudes, behaviors, and policies that promote peace, justice, equality and respect for everyone in our society. Then we will begin to have real freedom.