Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Not every fallen American soldier died to defend our freedom

Memorial Day is a great holiday worth honoring, but it’s also surrounded by a lot of inflated rhetoric and exaggerated mythology. I’ve written pro-military Memorial Day posts in the past, and my views haven’t changed on the holiday since then, so I’d normally hate to add an asterisk to all the solemn remembrance. But today’s newspaper and news feed featured a bit too much of the exaggerating for me to hold my tongue.

Every American should realize that not all wars are fought to defend our freedoms, and not every American soldier who died in war died in defense of those freedoms.

The military is an important and worthwhile profession to which I’m proud to belong. Even when it isn’t defending freedom, the armed services can be a force for tremendous good in the world. But we shouldn’t romanticize the precise purposes which the death of US soldiers has served on a case by case basis. Over the course of its history, the US has fought all sorts of wars for all sorts of reasons.

Sometimes, we fought to defend faraway allies from invasion. Other times, we fought to contain the spread of communism. Other times, we fought to preserve our global hegemony. In prior centuries, we occasionally fought for naked territorial expansion. In more recent decades, we’ve cited any number of justifications, from maintaining regional stability, to preventing WMD’s from falling into the wrong hands, to creating conditions conducive to long term peace, to furthering our vaguely defined “national interests.”

Many of these wars were just. Many saved lives relative to the alternative. Many who fought in them made heroic sacrifices for a noble cause. And some of them really did eliminate direct threats to the freedoms of everyday American citizens. But not all of them, and arguably only a handful of them, had any discernible impact on our liberty here at home. And in hindsight, some of them were clearly counterproductive – not just because they were unsuccessful, but because they actually may have made us less free in the long run. The soldiers who died in these other wars may still be worth remembering, but whatever they are, they died for something other than freedom.

The point is that soldiers aren’t heroes by default. Sometimes they do good, and sometimes they do bad. Sometimes they die, and that’s unfortunate. But even then, they oughtn’t be instantly canonized as valiant role models worth celebrating every May. Sound policy-making demands that we not view war through rose colored glasses. Remember that only one side of a war can ever be morally in the right at the same time. Even in the best of wars, one side’s dead dies for nothing. And even if you think the US has been in the right for every single one of its wars historically, this does not guarantee it will always be in the right moving forward. It’s dangerous to glorify anyone who makes the ultimate sacrifice without mention of what it was they sacrificed for, which necessarily varies by the circumstances of the war in question.

So this Memorial Day, honor those who gave their lives for liberty, and also honor those who died fighting for what they thought was right. But don’t equate the two, because that’s a lazy oversimplification. The groups overlap, but they are not one and the same.

PS - Louis CK has a relevant joke. It ends with "he thinks."

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