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Memorial Day is a day when Americans remember those who died in the service of our country. The men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice did so to preserve our security and freedom. We owe them more than periodic remembrances and statements of gratitude. We owe them an unshakeable commitment to ensuring that current and future soldiers are sent into harm’s way only when the nation’s interests are clearly at stake.

Too often our leaders have sent Americans to die in response to vague threats or in pursuit of unclear purposes. Memorial Day should remind us all to demand better foreign policy leadership.

Our nation’s founders opposed large standing military forces in peacetime because they feared it would encourage leaders to use them frequently. Powerful armies are a temptation for ambitious politicians. The founders also intended for Congress to act as a check on presidential war-making, requiring a majority vote for declarations of war. President George Washington articulated this wisdom in his farewell address of 1796, calling for America to avoid permanent alliances, enmities and foreign wars.

These assumptions dominated American policy for most of the nation’s early history. But after World War II, and with the onset of the Cold War, the United States took a very different course. To contain communist aggression, Americans supported the largest peacetime military in the nation’s history—more powerful than nearly any other. To enable crisis decision-making, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Congress ceded war-making to the president.

Many of these policy changes were necessary. They made our country and our allies safer. Nonetheless, since 1945 it has become easier for American presidents to deploy forces abroad, often without clarity of purpose or strategy. In Vietnam, almost 3 million Americans served, and more than 58,000 died. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were never clear about why Vietnam mattered and what we were fighting for.

The same can be said for Iraq, where more than 1.5 million Americans served and 4,474 died. Why were American forces sent to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein? Where were the alleged “weapons of mass destruction?” Where was the connection between Saddam and the Al Qaeda terrorist organization?

The men and women who served in Vietnam, Iraq and other wars showed courage and patriotism. They followed orders. But they deserved better. Their missions were noble, but they failed because the wars were not clearly connected to national interests. Our soldiers did not know why they were fighting, and it was therefore almost impossible to formulate an effective strategy. How can you win if you do not know what winning is?

Perhaps these wars had worthwhile purposes, and perhaps they could have been conducted more successfully. The absence of a clear definition of interests by civilian leaders – Presidents Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush and others – made it impossible to set appropriate and consistent battlefield priorities. This was particularly true in difficult counterinsurgency conflicts where the native resistance had a clear goal (expel the occupier), and the American occupation army was uncertain whether and why it wished to stay.

Today, more wars similar to Vietnam and Iraq are likely. We face a series of potential conflicts around North Korea, the South China Sea, Syria, Ukraine and Iran. The spread of the Islamic State group and other terrorist groups also draws intensive American military attention. The inexperienced and understaffed foreign policy team around President Donald Trump is increasing the size and aggressive posture of the military, while at the same time cutting tools for diplomacy, multilateral cooperation and international aid. When confronted by its first major foreign policy crisis, which will happen soon, the current administration will turn to the military and deploy troops. The numbers will start small, and they will grow as threats metastasize and the expectations for quick American victories escalate.

This is our history. It is also our present and our future. As a global power, we cannot turn back to a time of small armies and infrequent American wars abroad. Let us instead use this Memorial Day to prepare for the foreign policy challenges we have recently neglected by asking our leaders to clearly articulate our national interests and define our priorities. We can then demand that future service members are sent into battle only when their efforts are truly vital for the nation’s security and freedom. This does not require isolationism, but instead a more deliberate, careful and well-planned use of American force. We owe those who have already given their lives for our country nothing less.

 

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today and various newspapers.

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We are living in a trying time for our democracy. Many of us are questioning the survival of our deeply divided society. Seventy-five years ago, Americans faced an even graver danger when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying much of our navy and killing 2,403 Americans. The enemy then was a foreign power, but the challenges at home were not very different from what we see around us today.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States was deeply divided. Most Americans had not recovered the wealth they lost during the Great Depression, and they remained insecure about their futures in a weak economy. Insecurity fed bigotry and intolerance.

The vast majority of Americans opposed war against the fascist powers. They remembered the costs of the First World War and the unsatisfying results. They hated many elements of fascism but did not believe it was worse than Soviet communism, British imperialism, or the continued growth of “Oriental,” “African” and “Jewish” groups in the lands conquered by the fascists. “America First” was a rallying cry for ordinary white Americans who felt mistreated by elites, scarred by economic difficulties and dislocated by international policies.

The Japanese intended their attack to inflame the divisions in the United States, much as Russian, Chinese, the Islamic State group and North Korean leaders seek to exploit our divisions today. But contrary to these expectations, the United States emerged more united in 1941 because it had leaders, especially President Franklin Roosevelt, who tied the war effort to public service, not partisan positions or special interests.

Defending American territory and defeating those who threatened it, Roosevelt spoke directly to citizens: “Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories – the changing fortunes of war.”

The American people heard the call and responded. They would collectively serve their country in different forms – some on the battlefield, many more in factories – to improve the world, despite their lingering reservations and differences of viewpoint. Roosevelt articulated a big goal for all groups, and he made everyone a participant, a stakeholder, and, yes, a public servant. He called the war effort a “covenant with each other before all the world.”

After the war, the public service ethic inspired by Pearl Harbor continued. Americans from all backgrounds served their country in the military, politics, philanthropy and many other fields. Through the G.I. Bill, public service provided access to education and homeownership, both designed to bring citizens together in improving themselves and sharing neighborhoods. For the pre-baby boomer generation that lived through Pearl Harbor as young men and women, working for your country, paying taxes for the common good and defining your success by your public service were essential parts of citizenship. They built the schools, roads, power plants and businesses that continue to undergird our prosperity.

But by the late 1960s, amid controversies over civil rights and an unpopular war in Vietnam, many Americans rejected public service. Bipartisan agreement in 1973 to eliminate conscription and make the military an all-volunteer profession contributed to an abandonment of public service as a marker of citizenship. By the end of the century, the majority of our nation’s business, academic and media elites had never served their country in any serious way – a complete reversal from a generation earlier, when public service was a necessary step to leadership and respectability.

Today, we will never overcome our current divisions by continuing to argue over the issues that divide us. Nor will we rally together magically behind a charismatic outsider who promises to blow it all up. The lesson of Pearl Harbor is that a divided nation needs a common mission and a shared commitment to public service to build new bonds for cooperation, as occurred 75 years ago.

Programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps are a start, but they remain very small. Our citizens can do so much more.

We should begin with our crumbling infrastructure and fighting terrorism, two topics that received extensive attention in the recent presidential campaign. Our national and state leaders should create new avenues for young Americans to get involved in addressing these needs, perhaps volunteering their skills for a year or two, followed by assistance with education. Young men and women can apply their talents as engineers, translators, social workers and even soldiers. They will learn to work with people very different from themselves and take pride in contributing to the public good. They will define their success not just in what they earn, but how they serve their fellow citizens.

Our divided country needs a new generation to get out of its segregated neighborhoods and away from its electronic devices to work together in public service. That is what the Pearl Harbor generation did when attacked by a foreign foe. Young men and women are fed up with politics as usual, and they are eager to become another “greatest generation,” if only we will give them a chance.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 3 December 2016.

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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