Posts Tagged ‘Memorial Day’

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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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Although Americans generally see democracy as an alternative to war, our democracy has been at war since its first days. Every generation of Americans has experienced extended military conflict that killed thousands of people, consumed mountains of treasure and changed the fabric of the country. But our wars have never really ended on the date when battlefield hostilities ceased. The costs are always greater than anticipated, and we pay the bills much longer than we expect.

The goals of war – independence, union, resources and security – are rarely achieved as decisively as leaders promise. Adversaries rarely disappear, and their successors are often more threatening. Numerous generations in retrospect have questioned whether their wars had been worth fighting. Would Americans re-fight the War of 1812, the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War if given another chance? The Second World War is the striking exception: the only American war that does not inspire serious regrets after the fact.

Our regrets are not because we devalue the courage, patriotism and sacrifice of our soldiers. Rather, it is because we care so deeply about the sacrifices of our warriors that we almost inevitably question why we sent them into harm’s way, and what their brave efforts achieved.

The deaths, the injuries and the debts linger over our society even after war has long passed. In fact, war has been a consistent engine of change in the United States far from the battlefields.

In 1786, about 4,000 Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts took up arms (“Shays’ Rebellion”) to demand better treatment in return for their service. Their resistance convinced many Americans, including George Washington, that the new country needed a strong federal government to control local separatist impulses. The continuing pains of war motivated the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

The decades after the Civil War witnessed similar pressures when soldiers returned home with poor health, broken families and dismal economic prospects. Federal pensions to Union soldiers became the first national social welfare program, sending millions of dollars each year from the treasury as guaranteed benefits to citizens and their closest kin. Former Confederate soldiers did not receive these benefits, exacerbating sectional tensions and motivating many Southern states, including Texas, to create their own social welfare systems for former soldiers.

The suffering of World War I veterans during the Great Depression, their demands for a “bonus” and their brutal treatment by federal authorities contributed, after 1932, to the New Deal. President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared that the United States had to fight a “war” on suffering that promised sustenance and security to patriotic citizens ravaged by an economic catastrophe they could not control. The countless federal and state agencies created during the 1930s used the military as a model for putting people to work building roads, parks, schools and other public facilities.

After World War II, the need to help millions of returning soldiers motivated another monumental shift in American society through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “GI Bill.” The GI Bill created our modern systems of higher education, home finance and consumer-driven economic growth. The service of African Americans and other minorities in the war also motivated the first major federal acts to desegregate war industries and the armed forces themselves.

In the coming years, we should expect the pressures for federal assistance to increase from veterans of our recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other regions, despite efforts to limit federal spending. Our returning soldiers need costly physical and mental care, and better-funded agencies to manage that care. The deaths and the suffering of the survivors and their families will surely motivate us to do more for public education, health and welfare.

On this Memorial Day we should not only thank our courageous service members, but also think deeply about the wars we have fought. We should begin planning for the continuing costs and accept the changes that those costs will bring. Addressing the true burden of war is our greatest patriotic duty.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 22 May 2015.

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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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