As we reflect, yet again, on how many US citizens have fallen in wars overseas and within our borders, I thought it would be interesting to take a historical view of the decisions our leaders made to take us into those wars where many service men paid the ultimate price for that decision. Some of these thoughts may be too provocative..I even held the thought and action of posting a day to reflect on whether to post. Obviously you see the result of that thought.
From the Civil War, which was prosecuted so forcefully and with complete commitment by President Lincoln and which cost him his own life, there could be an interesting thought surrounding that decision and considering the alternative option of not hoping for those shots to be fired by the Confederates at Fort Sumter and that letting those disaffected Southern states go their own way would have been less costly in men and cultural currency, and economies shattered. Then, the issue of race, which was so central to the war, was not solved. Simply freeing slaves did not end it. Freeing them without compensation or a financial foundation did them a disservice and led to a destruction of the very fiber of their society that led to many migrations throughout the next hundred and fifty years. My most provocative thought is considering whether a divided nation would have resolved that issue more satisfactorily and with the participation of blacks in their own freeing. MLK may have occurred in Southern history as a result of international sanctions, collective shame as the issue became untenable and that today’s Confederacy would have a new flag that was completely different that the one that insidiously impacts the rest of the US in such negative ways, in my opinion. That so many lives were lost, racism was not legislated away and that the “Southern Issue” is still very much a part of our national fabric and that it is a barrier to many productive solutions so badly needed right up until today. It is a great society for its literature, its food, its particular humor in many ways, and we have so many dear friends who would have been part of the fabric of change in these past many decades and we would have benefited from all of these in our lives.
Then, in the late 19th century under the leadership of President McKinley, we forayed into imperialism and fought a war that we were told was for sound moral convictions and we gained the territories of Cuba, Puerto Rica, Guam and the Philippines for our efforts. The Filipinos saw us as occupiers, the Cuban adventure is still being played out, we are mishandling Puerto Rico as a US territory and the GOP is trying to punish the island’s leaders for its handling of a bad economic situation. How can one imagine writing a letter to a fallen service man in any part of the conflict of the Spanish-American War? What would be justification for those lives lost. We now know the Yellow Press of the Alternative Facts and the Hearst propaganda machine misled us into that war. We have been misled by other leaders.
Some fault the naiveté of Woodrow Wilson for getting involved in Europe in 1917 and taking us into a quagmire that was only recently redefined by Angela Merkel, not because she was complaining about the interference of America, but because Trump was judged incapable, incompetent, unreliable and seemingly uninterested in that commitment. Surely Wilson has been judged as wanting by so many, many historians for his handling of the Versailles Treaty, not for his desired goals, but, again, for his naiveté related to the hatred in Europe, the fragmentation of the peoples and lands involved, the historical context of any decision-making and his hope for a collective body to police the world’s problems when every nation was always going to look to its own borders and citizens before considering anything else. Trump has reaffirmed this in every fiber of his being and rhetoric and his supporters seem happy to let the rest of the world shrivel as long as America is made great again. Are our schools failing to teach us the correct or important lesson of our place in the world? What is the UN, what is globalism, what is our part in these?
A misspoken or sloppily professed foreign policy statement by the US in 1950 was read by the North Koreans as diminished support by the US for the South, which led to an invasion. A hastily patched up response, handed to Douglas McArthur, whose arrogance and hubris will cause further international strife, more deaths and lead to his being fired by Truman, will take us into a prolonged war called the Forgotten War that few wanted, less understood and not many recall or devote time to visiting its monument when heading for The Wall in D.C. It was an international police action by the UN run by the US, but it ended up costing us in prestige and lives lost, and in our standing in Asia and elsewhere. It is still unsettled to this day and shows signs of being a major issue for this administration and the leadership does not show promise in resolving it through diplomacy.
The leadership of President Johnson, whose ego and fear of domestic politics and elections contributed to a faulty decision based on fallacious information that the leadership knew to be false to expand the conflict in Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The pain of my own generation of veterans still visiting the Wall in Washington, D.C. is a continuing wound in this nation’s pride, honesty and commitment to the values it touts on the international stage. If one goes back to 1919, during the Peace Conference at Versailles to settle the conflict in World War One (of course called the Great War at the time because it was going to be the war to end all wars) when a young Ho Chi Minh petitioned the leaders to meet with him to discuss nationhood for the people of Southeast Asia. He felt the imperial control of France was wrong and that Wilson’s words denigrating imperialism should be taken to heart. He did not get an audience, but we know he did not give up. After WW II, he briefly took control of Vietnam and set up a socialist-style government with a constitution mirroring our own. We gave him some support against the era of Japanese control of Vietnam, but Truman, for domestic political reasons based on fear of communism and a potential backlash from the Republicans in Congress, chose DeGaulle over Ho Chi Minh in late 1945. Succeeding presidents will step further into the tangle of Vietnam, making poor decisions, ones that whittled away our values, lost lives unnecessarily and suffered outcomes that still influence lives and diplomatic decisions to this day. What do you tell the surviving spouses of the more than 50,000 servicemen about the decision to go to Southeast Asia? You can buy a big Mac in Hanoi today. The current Vietnamese citizen, the vast majority who were not alive for any of the war, welcome Americans warmly today and offer great hospitality to foreigners. As usual for most of their history, their suspicions are towards their Chinese neighbors.
In the Middle East, we have been heavily involved since the end of WW II. We did not draw up the boundaries, that is the fault of Britain and France, but we chose or influenced the leadership and political directions of nearly every country there, spanning all the way across the Maghreb through Pakistan. They have always been suspicious of our motives, disappointed in our actions and view us as occupiers or uneasy and undependable allies. We have the unenviable position of having the supreme power to make grotesque changes in the landscape, population configuration, political leadership and economic well-being of most of this area, yet we do not possess a smidgeon of power or authority to solve its problems. What do you tell the soldiers, marines, airmen and women, and sailors who fought and continue to fight there why you are there. We have shifted from going into Iraq in the era of early cable tv with 24 hour coverage and embedded reporting and watching much of it playing out in real time where we simply punished Saddam for his taking over Kuwait. In the early 90s we asserted our power with the goal of destabilizing our control and by doing this with an effective UN coalition. Then, we started to lose sight of our mission. We mishandled the Al Qaida attacks on our military and home soil by claiming weapons of mass destruction were threatening us in Iraq, where Saddam hated Al Qaida, to an argument that a Taliban-backed Al Qaida meant we needed to invade an entire country to get at the several hundred Al Qaida individuals living in Afghanistan. If you have seen the disturbing new film on Netflix, The War Machine, it is a condemnation of nearly all our approaches attempted in this theater and does not paint a picture that is hopeful, nor just, nor consistent with values we should emulate. Whatever currency we gained, whatever sympathy and support that poured out to us after 9/11 has been squandered. It was at this time that NATO first invoked Article 5, without hesitation.
Now we have an unfit president, one whose proven deficient in so many ways with the decisions he’s made up to this point but one who is singularly unfit for the honor of honoring, laying the wreath at the tomb of Unknown Soldier in Arlington. This is perhaps the biggest farce in our history of mishandling the valor and sacrifice of the military individuals who have sacrificed, either through destroyed lives, disfigured bodies or paying the ultimate sacrifice. I truly found this disgraceful.
On this Memorial Day, I don’t and never could profess “America, Right or Wrong”, but, though I am shy of waving a flag normally, today I flew ours from our home. My father as well as Mary’s fought in the Pacific in World War II and there are so many stories of valor, honor, sacrifice and courage that come from all of the wars mentioned above that we must keep our vigil when electing these leaders, when learning about the conflicts, discerning the goals and desires of all involved, and must understand that ultimately a group of individuals will be sent to solve the conflicts when diplomacy fails and that we must have unimpeachable evidence, will and design for entering into warfare as a means of foreign policy. We owe it to every single individual wearing a uniform representing us as a nation. It is surely the most profound obligation leaders and citizens have to their nation. Those service men and women will always find community, family and life-long friendship with the person on their left and right in combat. They understand the nature of warfare all too well. It is their honor we respect on this day.