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On Veterans Day, a brief history of U.S. war

More often than not, ham-handed politics have led to the conflicts in which our soldiers have sacrificed.
The Three Soldiers statue at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. (David Bjorgen / Creative Commons)

The Three Soldiers statue at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. (David Bjorgen / Creative Commons) None

We celebrate Veteran's Day when we do because World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. — at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

That futile, bloody war could easily have been averted. Its aftermath led, a bit more than 20 years later, to an even wider World War II. In Russia, bled dry by the war, Bolshevism replaced shaky democratic governance.

A good case can be made that World Wars I and II were the same war. A punitive Treaty of Versailles, punishing Germany, gave rise to Nazism and the crazed leadership of Adolf Hitler. Early in the 20th century, major European and Asian powers vied for regional and colonial power. That contest was left unresolved in 1918. By the end of World War II, colonialism had ended. Profound peace movements, and anti-militarist feelings, have proved durable in the World War II aggressor nations of Germany and Japan. Nuclear weapons, used by the U.S. to force Japanese surrender in World War II, have now spread to many nations and, along with chemical and biological weapons, pose huge dangers to mankind.

I have always thought any American president should ask these questions before committing the United States to war:

  • Is the cause sufficient that I would send my own children into danger?
  • Does it justify changing the nature of our domestic society and spending huge resources, for an undetermined period, as war proceeds? (There are always unintended and unforeseen consequences.)
  • Are our genuine national interests at stake, or is the situation marginal?

If those questions had been applied by prior presidents, the U.S. would have been at war less frequently than it has been. In fact, most of our involvements, after the fact, are hard to justify.

The United States would not exist without the Revolutionary War. Yet some historians would argue that, over time, the American colonies would have gotten independence without war. There was a tide in the affairs of men at the time, however, which would have been difficult to resist in 1776.

The War of 1812 was a war of bald aggression. We attempted to conquer Canada and were driven back. The Mexican-American War, too, was one bred by territorial ambition.

Historians have pointed to many instances where the Civil War might have been averted. Yet, just as the drive for independence seemed inescapably to lead to the Revolutionary War, so does the institution of slavery seem a reason that conflict between free and slave-holding states was destined to end as it did.

The Spanish-American War, promoted by William Randolph Hearst and political hawks, also was a war of conquest, although it was sold as liberating oppressed Cubans from Spanish tyranny. We got the Philippines as a colonial bonus.

President Woodrow Wilson pledged to keep us out of World War I. But skillful British propaganda and largely phony atrocity stories drew us into it anyway. Wilson's post-war proposals left us the heritage of a Wilsonian foreign policy — one leading often to self-righteous military interventions justified on moral grounds — which has gotten us involved, in the decades since, in conflicts where we had little directly at stake. Wilsonianism has been practiced by presidents of both political parties, most recently and damagingly in Iraq.

World War II, it can be argued, was inescapable for us — especially since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were more than just territorially ambitious nations. Their brutality and genocide had to be stopped. Yet the war did not flow unexpectedly from a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It could be seen coming for at least a decade, during which time we and other western nations chose to overlook the obvious. Hitler was waging war in Europe more than two years before we entered, Japan far earlier than that in Asia. Finally, a U.S. embargo of Japanese oil imports (thus choking the Japanese economy) brought Japan to its desperate gamble at Pearl Harbor. There were at least a dozen junctures during the 1930s where concerted, multilateral action might have stopped World War II. But financial/economic crisis in their home countries caused other national leaders to conveniently turn away.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm sorry, but this is hindsight crap. There is a measure of truth to the statements, but the self-righteous and indignant statement that most wars could be avoided is self-serving and with the benefit of looking back in a way that no one has.

Of course, if we have a road map of events, and we could go back in history, we might be able to avoid wars. But this column is pointing out peace in a way that is as likely as time travel. Maybe if we fire up our flux-capacitors and get our Dolorian to 88mph, we could avoid wars.

The fact is that wars are often entered into by poor politics. You're right about that. But war cannot be avoided unilaterally. The mere thought that suggesting Korea could have been avoided by one misstep by a politician's utterance is provocative in its own right. How dare you suggest that a war comes down to a minor statement? No statement about Desert Storm?

It's unfortunate that your article could not have been a take on pacifism under the context of realistic negotiation and international policy. Hindsight is 20/20, but pontificating with hindsight is one of those things that invites conflict. Ironic, no?

drumcat

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Since Eve's eating of the apple of the tree of life man has and will continue to vie for power of some kind over others and wars will continue until the Second Coming of Christ.

The darkside of man's nature guarantees there will be no peace on earth until then.

Men will always desire power and control over others. There will always be dictators and despots.

Men have and will always succumb to the serpent's lies. We have just experienced that truth with our recent election of Obama as president.

Lainie

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Drumcat: Thanks for reminding re Desert Storm. I omitted a sentence in my final copy which dealt with it. Desert Storm was made necessary because of
false perceptions both by Saddam Hussein and by the U.S. and its partners, Saddam thought he could invade Kuwait with impunity, and threaten Saudi Arabia, without our intervention. When he did, I among others believed a financial/economic containment strategy could force
Saddam's withdrawal without war. As it turned out, it did take a military intervention to do it. President George Bush wisely refrained from moving onward to Baghdad because he knew that, if we did, we would end up taking
ownership of that Iraq's fractious problems.

Mutual misperception then led to the Gulf War. On the one hand, the Bush administration, as the previous Clinton administration, and most western intelligence agencies believed that Saddam still maintained weapons of mass destruction programs that were operative when he had thrown out U.N. weapons inspectors. Saddam, for his part, wanted the world to think he still had the programs and that he was no paper tiger. He refused to believe, until the moment of actual intervention, that the U.S. would attack. We launched our attack before definitively knowing whether WMD were there or not.

Korea: It was not some politician who made comments about Korea not being within our defense perimeter. It was a Secretary of State whose comments
were taken to reflect official U.S. policy.

Yes, of course, my judgments are made in hindsight---although there were many at the various points in history who made them in advance. We avoid future mistakes by learning from those of the past. No pontificating here.
Just my observations. Hard to see how they might invite future conflict.

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Van Dyk,

Thank you.

Tom_Lix

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Van Dyk -

I enjoyed this essay and its examination of America's history with war but, with all due respect to your experience, your statement that the United States "has been to war many times, at great human and other cost, often without measuring carefully the alternative options," seems a bit dubious.

It is always prudent to explore diplomatic solutions as a crisis is building, but too often the outbreak of war is now portrayed as the failure of peaceful nations to convince an aggressor nation to pursue a different course. In personal terms, this results in something little different than blaming the victim for the crime, but this has become the vogue of criticizing America's military actions and participation in wars.

Nations define their own interests and will make decisions based on a very simple risk/reward set of factors. Sometimes it is not possible to stop an aggressor through peaceful means and don't believe you are implying that war is never justified, just that many of the ones we have chosen to engage in were not.

Political science professors have been kicking the Hacky Sack of the 'just war' around for decades, I believe as a way of biding time until tenure wraps them in its warm cocoon. Since it appears you are entering that field of debate, it seems that your definition of a just war would make it impossible to have us look at resolving conflict with a strategic mindset. What I mean is that we must, at times, be able to look at the geopolitical landscape not as it is today, but as it will be a year, two years or five years from now. We must see beyond the pacifying statements made by problem actors and not be constrained by isolationist doctrines that would only have us act when the wolves of war step on our doorstep to challenge us directly.

This is not to say that we can simply squash any nation we perceive to be as a future threat, just that we should not be bound to refrain from examining the utility of military might to secure our national security.

America currently lacks a cohesive and understandable foreign policy doctrine. It is made on an ad hoc basis. You could say that our leaders are simply tailoring our policies to fit specific circumstances, but it leaves the world guessing about what America will do next. America should be a stabilizing force in international relations, not a destabilizing one.

I am very grateful to you for starting this conversation at a time when the world is in some transformation, the end result of which is difficult to predict. I fear that as a nation we may be forced to make choices in the near future on these grave issues. Should we find ourselves on the brink of war once again, the dialogue you are engaged in will be the solid foundation of what informs us to make sound decisions.

Respectfully,

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Van Dyk,

Thank you for making a travesty of the sacrifice many have made for your freedom.

tstcusmc

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Tstcusmc, I honor the sacrifices of every one of our soldiers, during peacetime and during every one of our wars, but just how did, say, the Mexican-American War, or the Spanish-American War, ensure and protect our freedoms?

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 2:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Remember one thing. It's the soldier who keeps us free and the politican (and judges) who work to enslave us.

Lainie

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

The comments by drumcat, tstcusmc, and Lainie only show that war can be just as resistant to rational discussion as politics and religion.

Sean

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 5:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Makes sense, as war has largely been the result of politics and religion...

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 7:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I suspect most Native American's find Mr. Van Dyk's list of wars incomplete, not to mention the family of Colonel Custer. We were also involved in several conflicts before the Revolutionary War. The casualty percentages in King Phillips War in New England in 1675-76 are thought to be the highest of any war we have been involved in.

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 8:37 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems to me to be singularly inappropriate to discuss the legitimacy of any particular war on the day we set aside to honor the men and women who serve us and sacrifice for us by wearing their country's uniform.

On any other day of the year, we can talk about whether this war, or that war, or any war was entered into on good, bad, or indifferent grounds for good, bad, or indifferent reasons.

But to focus the discussion on Veterans' Day in such a manner demeans the men and women we should be honoring - the politics of war have no place and serve no purpose when remembering and honoring those who are called upon to do the actual work of war.

I often speak of the two sons I have who are in uniform, one an army sergeant first class and one a Marine lance corporal. My soldier son enlisted prior to 9/11, but has since re-upped twice, including once while he served in Iraq.

My Marine son enlisted via a delayed entry program prior to his senior year in high school, a couragious act that subjected him to ridicule and persecution from teachers and students alike during his final year. He volunteered to have his tour extended in order to take an assignment on Okinawa, and he routinely and repeatedly volunteers for service in every combat theater in which Marines fight.

As he tells me, "Pops, when it comes to Iraq, there are two kinds of Marines: those who are there and those who want to be there."

The men and women who enlist - remember, it is an all-volunteer military now - do so with full knowledge of the risks. And they join to do what it is that soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coasties do - they don't do it not to do it.

Most don't enlist for grand, geo-political reasons. Instead, the country needs to be served, and, out of love of country, they volunteer to serve. Quite simple, really.

And in that service, when they're out there, on the front line or even working in some maintenance shop somewhere, they serve to the best of their ability because to do anything less would be to let down or endanger the buddies with whom they serve. Again, quite simple.

There is a growing disconnect in this country between those who serve, and their families, and those who don't. It has nothing to do with rich or poor or black or white, since the old canard of "Rich man's war, poor man's fight" has been debunked so many times as to render it flat-earth in its validity.

Instead, it's what Rudyard Kipling said in his classic poem on the subject, Tommy:

"Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;"

It's easy to snicker at one who, rather than take the easy, college way after high school, signed up to serve. "What a fool he must be! How could she be so stupid as to want to join the service?"

"Makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep."

When I consider the youth of this country and whether they're up to taking the reins of leadership, I don't think of Joe College, I think of G.I. Joe.

So, keep your political discussion on war silent for this day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. Can we who risk so little and gain so much from their service not simply say "Thank you" to those who risk so much and gain so little?

BTW...Tstcusmc? That's my son, Lance Corporal Tom, with whom I am very well pleased. I only now paid attention to his comments, recognizing his moniker. To him, being a Marine is a deeply personal commitment for which he gives his all.

To paraphrase another line from another Kipling poem, Gunga Din, "You're a better man than I am, LCpl Tom."

By extension, this applies also to his older brother, SFC Mark, to their buddies, their fellow soldiers and Marines, and all who serve today or have served in the past.

To them, what's wrong with simply saying, "Thank you for our freedom?"

The Piper

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 8:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Sometimes, infrequently, Piper gets it right. He does tonight. In 2006, the CBC reported the dismal news that only two-thirds of Canadians had attended some kind of Remembrance Day exercises. The horror. We should have that problem.

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 11:12 p.m. Inappropriate

"President Woodrow Wilson pledged to keep us out of World War I. But skillful British propaganda and largely phony atrocity stories drew us into it anyway."
Funny, I thought it was German U-Boats sinking American vessels, killing American citzens, and restricting American trade that was the cause. While British propaganda played an important role, it was to emphasize German conduct. But for unrestricted submarine warfare, the US would not have been involved.

Grizzzfan

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 11:19 p.m. Inappropriate

"Finally, a U.S. embargo of Japanese oil imports (thus choking the Japanese economy) brought Japan to its desperate gamble at Pearl Harbor."
Another great lie -- the oil embargo started in August of 1941. Japan started drawing up the plans for war on the US in January of 1941. Japan was going to attack the US to protect its southern move, regardless of the oil embargo. The oil embargo only affected the timing of the attack, not the fact of the attack. This is a complete falsehood to place some blame for Pearl Harbor on the US instead of Imperial Japan. A great book on this topic is Bankrupting the Enemy by Edward Miller -- examines in great detail trade relations, foreign currency accounts, etc.

Grizzzfan

Posted Tue, Nov 11, 11:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Piper does make a good point. Perhaps this discussion would have been more appropriate for November 12.

I don't think anyone involved meant to demean the sacrifices of America's military men and women. I certainly did not, my father and his brothers having served in the U.S. Army during World War II and my father's father and mother's brother having served in their respective countries' militaries at other times.

I would like to think that most people, even if they think certain wars were unjust, still feel the same way. I understand that was not the case in the Vietnam era. I hope it has changed by now. To be honest, I think much of the hostility is now directed squarely at the civilians in charge, not those who serve. I'd like to think so, anyway.

Thanks for making me think, Piper.

Posted Wed, Nov 12, 4:16 a.m. Inappropriate

In closing, I am somewhat surprised that anyone would think this discussion was inappropriate for Nov. 11. I cannot think of anything more appropriate.

I launched the discussion to provoke thought. Grizzlan, for instance,
generally repeats the conventional arguments of the time in citing pre- World War I and pre-World II events. Of course Japan was planning a Pacific operation against the U.S. long before the oil embargo was established against it. The U.S. and other countries make such plans for all kinds of contingencies. Usually they are never used. And of course
we had to respond to the Pearl Harbor attack. The point was: Years before either the blockade or the attack, western nations had the opportunity to
check 1930s aggression by Germany and Japan and chose to turn their heads.
Hitler blatantly violated post-World War I treaties, for instance, by
building a war machine which was prohibited.

It remains troopers' role "not to reason why but to do or die" when called on to do so by national leaders. That does not in any way
reduce the honor owed to those who do the dying or contribute their service. Those who launch a given war---even when the war is mistaken---make the argument that it must be pursued "lest those who serve die in vain." When a mistake has been made, it is best to correct it before even more die in vain.

The prime example in recent history, of course, was the Vietnam War, which should never have happened and which was extended unnecessarily for many years. The war was a mistake but the GIs who served there nonetheless deserve gratitude for their service.


Posted Fri, Nov 14, 9:11 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't mind any of the retorts, save "Sean". This is a surprisingly rational discussion. I would suggest in general that the wars prior to WWI were generally accepted as a method to expand geography. They were dangerous ploys, but wars always redraw maps. In that era, it was politically acceptable from the dawn of time to then to expand territory by war.

Let's not forget the context of war. There was a time where it was not simply the resolution of political differences by force, but was often the catalyst for expansion, etc. Stealing our land from the Native Americans was an acceptable idea then. At the time, it was also acceptable to keep women from owning land or voting. This is why your piece is "revisionist". When you press the ideals of today against the mores and concepts of yesteryear, you will get impossible differences that cannot be reconciled. Worse, you'll place the decisions of then in an impossible decision, unfairly saying that the people of then acted unthinkably.

Gee, why did people of the 1800's use horses. We have perfectly good cars!

drumcat

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 9:04 a.m. Inappropriate

An excellent topic, seldom discussed on these days which are treated as holy by the unquestioning masses.

Perhaps next Veterans Day, we can discuss why we have no days set aside for the innocent victims of U.S. aggression. Rarely if ever does the topic of civilian murder come up and yet with every war it is the civilians, bombed out of their homes, raped, tortured, starved and displaced who always suffer the largest unwarranted portion of the violence unleashed by military aggression.

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