On this 4th of July I heard a fine, intelligent, talented young women give a presentation on her experience in basic training with the Air Force. A recurring theme of her presentation was the sacrifices of young military people for our freedom. Her rhetoric made me reflect on all those young Americans who have sacrificed their lives, limbs, senses, and minds for what they were told was freedom. Was freedom involved in their loss?
If we look at the United States first war, the Revolutionary war – the impetus of the annual 4th of July Freedom Fest, it was most definitely a war for economics, not freedom. It was a war about taxes. 25,000, mostly young men, died for taxes. Some would say the war was about “freedom” from taxation without representation. If that was the case, it makes it a yet sadder war when one contemplates how many taxed Americans today feel unrepresented in Washington DC.
What about America’s next war, the War of 1812? Economics again – American merchants wanted to trade with France who was at war with Britain and US expansionists wanted to move into the Great Lakes States and Ohio River Valley where Britain supported the native people in those areas. So the only freedom involved was the American wish to extinguish the freedom of the native people living in a large piece of mid-North America.
The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 was a continuation of the US in its western expansion, seizing all Mexico’s territories from Texas to California. President Grant, who served in the war as a lieutenant, said it was “one of the most unjust wars ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Over 13,000 US soldiers died in the war.
How about America’s war against itself, the Civil War? I do wish I could say that it was fought to free the slaves of the South, but it was not. The Southern states withdrew from the Union for economic reasons, and yes, some northern hostility to slavery was part of those economic reasons. But Lincoln was willing to let them keep slavery if they rejoined the Union. Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves came later in the war to rally northern support and penalize the south. 625,000 died for the economic reunion of the United States. Three and a half million slaves were set free, most were rapidly put into a new form of servitude under the economic order of the south for nearly another 100 years
The Spanish-American war is seldom talked about in terms of freedom or anything else. This may well be due to the rather shameful nature of the US media and business interests inciting the US military to grab the crumbling Spanish empire’s colonies for their own profit.
The First World War saw America join in quite late, in 1917, with probably 12 million Europeans already dead. Why we joined is still not overly clear. The war had begun as European nations and “empires” jockeyed for territory and economic power. New war technologies had turned the war into a nightmare of unseen proportions. The US remained “isolationist” until President Woodrow Wilson, a professed pacifist, launched a propaganda blitz to put America in the war. As with the War of 1812 it seems sea commerce may have been one of the stimulating factors to move us into war (economics again). 116,000 American soldiers died in the slaughter during the last two years of the war.
The Second World War is sometimes called the “Good War.” Again the war began in Europe with territorial and economic claims, and again the US joined in late. US business had been making huge profits selling war materials to Europe – particularly England and it was obvious that there was much more money to be made if we joined the war properly. It was also a way to handle the still lingering effects of the economic depression of the 1930’s – unemployment was not a problem once the US joined the war with 16 million people in the services and factories turning out war materials at unheard of rates. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii the stage was set for the US entering the war (the actual chances of Germany or Japan invading the US mainland was next to zero). We need to remember that in 1893 US plantation owners in Hawaii overthrew the queen and in a few short years the US annexed the island as a territory. Japan felt it was their duty to “liberate” Pacific and Asian lands from Western imperialists who had colonized them. Japan saw the US as a threat to their imperialist expansion throughout Asia and the Pacific, and the destruction of the US fleet in Pearl Harbor was a way to preempt the US from attacking the Japanese fleet. I cannot dispute that the Nazi regime and philosophy was one of the most repugnant and vile that I have encountered and needed to be stopped, but it does not change the fact that with a death toll of 62-78 million, including 405,000 American soldiers, the US ended WWII as an economic and global superpower.
The next forty years were filled with US small wars, interventions, coup d’états, around the globe — Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Chile, Zaire, Grenada, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Iran, Haiti, Somalia, Kuwait, and more. When US involvement was evident or exposed, the word “freedom” usually came into the justification. In reality most of these interventions were also economic. Either in the immediate interest of US corporate profits or, even more often, in combination with the global economic battle between US capitalism and Soviet communism. With the astonishingly rapid and total collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, the world let out a nearly audible sigh in hopes that the muscle of the remaining superpower would not be exercised as much against the nations of the world.
But in 2001, the nearly unthinkable happened, the US was successfully attacked in its financial capital, New York City, and its military capital, the Pentagon. To complicate matters the attack came not from a country, but from a group of fundamentalist Islamists who wanted to stop the spread of Western culture and influence in the Islamic world. And to make matters worse the attacker was one of the groups that the US had supported in their attempts to destabilize and overthrow the Soviet supported government in Afghanistan. Instead of pinpointing and eliminating all the cells of Al Qaida around the world, the US invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the government, leaving us to try to govern a country that going back to Alexander the Great no invader has successfully governed. To make matters worse, before even coming close to securing our hold on Afghanistan, a US administration that was either mad or unbelievably stupid, or both, invaded Iraq and overthrew their government creating a witches brew of warring factions. In both these invasions the word “freedom” is bantered about but always from a US perspective, not from the conquered nation’s historical and cultural perspectives. In both these invasions I don’t feel I can successfully wave the economic flag, although there have been US corporations that pocketed billions on the wars. To the US itself these wars have been economic disasters, diverting huge portions of the nation’s wealth to hopeless and tragic misuse of our military forces.
These few paragraphs cannot begin to share the complexities of the wars of America. Libraries have been filled to overflowing trying to do so. And I am sure there are those who will see the opinions I have expressed as more “Blame America First” talk. But the point I am trying make is one of honesty. We need to stop talking about freedom when we send our young people into war – they are not fighting for freedom. Most often they have fought and died for economics, territory, influence, and sometimes, God help us, stupidity. On refection I see that I am being naïve. Why would the country tell its young that they are fighting for economic gains – would they fight? Are those aggressive genetic tendencies still strong enough in males to have them risk death for the rush of hormones that battle produces? Can we convince young women, such as the one I heard speak, that gender equality includes this kind of behavior? I don’t have the wisdom or intelligence to answer such questions. What I do have is the sadness to recognize that warfare has been part of human behavior for a very long time, and oh so regrettably, will probably continue as a reflection of the human condition.
©2010 Mark W. McGinnis