We are not in a conventional shooting war, but we are behaving as though we don’t care if we fall into one. Our men and women in uniform deserve better.

By Juan Cole
Middle Eastern and South Asian History, University of Michigan

On Memorial Day, the United States is not in a significant shooting war. It seems to me that the best way to honor our more than 1.1 million war dead is to work to keep it that way. Memorial Day should be not a paean to war but a solemn occasion to value peace.

Memorial Day began after the Civil War, with local observances, including at Arlington Cemetery. It was formalized in 1869 as “Decoration Day,” and May 30 was chosen because flowers would be in bloom across the nation by then. It only became a federal holiday in 1971, as the Vietnam War was winding to a lugubrious end.

War is always a failure. It is a failure of imagination, a failure of vision, a failure of politics, a failure of diplomacy.

As all those dead bodies attest, war is always a failure. It is a failure of imagination, a failure of vision, a failure of politics, a failure of diplomacy. There are times, as with the Confederate plot to secede so as to keep human beings enslaved in perpetuity or the Nazi regime’s murderous rampage through Europe, when war landed on our doorstep and was unavoidable, at least from our side.

Sadly, many of our wars have been elective and underpinned by unworthy motives, as with the Mexican-American land grab of 1846-48, or the Spanish-American War (and land grab) of 1898, or the Iraq War (and oil grab) of 2003-20. Those wars of aggression in American history are the biggest failures of all, since they are moral failings above all and put American soldiers in the grave for a reason other than the defense of the United States. Sometimes the reason was to feather the nest of economic and political elites.

It was that realization that led Smedley Butler to his bitter denunciation in 1933:

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6% over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100%. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket. There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

While we are not in a hot conventional war at the moment, maybe for the first time since the Clinton era, we are courting such disasters. The 900 U.S. troops in Syria may have originally had a mission of defending the U.S. from ISIL plots, but it is hard to justify their presence today, when the Syrian government objects to their presence. The 2,500 trainers in Iraq are not wanted there by a majority in parliament, according to the vote they took in 2020 when Trump blew away one of their generals along with Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Those two situations are perilous and those troops should be withdrawn.

The unprecedented economic and financial sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on Iran and Russia would be a casus belli if this invisible blockade had been put in place through gunships rather than bank officials. Sanctioning Putin and his circle or Ali Khamenei and his could be justified. A full-on attempt to cripple entire national economies is perceived as an act of war, and in both cases it could spiral into one.

We are not in a conventional shooting war, but we are behaving as though we don’t care if we fall into one. Our men and women in uniform deserve better. They deserve better politics and diplomacy. Because as Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, correctly said, we can only legitimately ask them to make the supreme sacrifice to protect the coasts of the United States of America. The geopolitical gamesmanship of the national security state may be important. It doesn’t rise to the level of justifying war.

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. He blogs at Informed Comment where this essay originally appeared. His newest book, “Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires” was published in 2020. He is also the author of “The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East” (2015) and “Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East” (2008). He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles.

Public Domain photo from Pixabay.com

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