I’m a few days late for Veteran’s Day, when many people were thanking our vets. At it’s heart it’s entirely right to thank our vets; they do a tough job, and we need them. Their dedication to protect us civilians is commendable, but I always feel a tug of hesitation when it comes to pouring out my gratitude to them. The reason is that our gratitude should be matched by our efforts to protect them from harm until it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t think we’ve succeeded at our part, and that is what gives me pause. We shouldn’t only be thanking them; we should be apologizing to them.
We sent them to Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Iraq won nothing for the US. The war in Afghanistan will also win us nothing. The Taliban will continue to hate us. Al Qaida will continue to plot. The myriad of other Anti-American organizations that have sprung up because of our adventures in the Middle East may, or may not, plot against us as well. So terrorism has certainly not been quashed, and the Taliban will stay out of power for only as long as our finger is in the dike. Guns and coercion can pretend to ideological aims, but they can never achieve them. Still we arm our children and send them over there assuming they are doing a noble job when they are actually doing an ignoble job nobly. It’s bad enough that we ask them to apply their blind loyalty to the whims of American hawks, but we make it worse by romanticizing their sacrifice. So I take a pass on thanking a vet without qualification, or on forwarding such messages through social media. Not because thanks isn’t deserved, but because attached to the thanks are some presumptions that are blatantly false.
Falsehood #1: Fallen soldiers are “heroes.” They might sometimes be, if they died to save a comrade or a civilian. But if he was driving down a road and an IED exploded and metal tore him to shreds, he’s not a hero, he’s just another victim. It’s meaningless violence committed against a soldier in a foreign land sent there for reasons that were long ago proven invalid. Am I to thank him for his sacrifice? No, because that presumes he was a sacrifice. A sacrifice implies that something has been gained.
I believe that if Americans examine their own motivations, we will admit that we call fallen soldiers “heroes” and overstate the nobility of the mission because it is too difficult to admit that one of our own died for frivolous reasons. We cannot bear the notion that an American son or daughter died because of a ruse we play with ourselves, so we dive headlong into the ruse, and threaten anyone who disagrees with us with a punch in the nose, or public disgrace and dishonor. The mechanism grows organically in a society. People throughout time have been taught, generation after generation, that it’s is an honor to go fight for your country. The meme goes as far back as ancient Greece, when Horace wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which translates to “It is sweet and right to die for your fatherland.” “Pro patria mori” strikes a deep emotional chord with Americans, but also with the sons of Al Qaida chiefs so the sentiment does not set us apart. That deep emotion is not proof that our country is great. It does not justify sending our sons into a meaningless war.
Falsehood #2: The soldiers in Afghanistan are “fighting for our freedom.” That’s just not true, not even slightly. And given the enormity of the cost we pay for that statement, you’d think people would stop saying it. But they don’t. I hear it almost every day, and a hundred times on Veterans Day. Our freedoms are not intact because of the wars in the Middle East. If we called our soldiers back today, our freedoms would not be threatened in the least. Those who would seek to attack us in that event are already seeking to attack us now.
Let’s do the adult thing; let’s put the deaths of our servicemen into context. It’s an unpopular thing to do, but not doing so is foolish. We can attach a myriad of romantic, vainglorious attributes to a soldier’s death, but unless we examine it for what it is, we’re simply going to replicate what might be a terrible mistake. Did that young man or woman who died in Afghanistan really die for our freedom? If we had no soldiers in Afghanistan (or previously in Iraq), what freedom would have been sacrificed on the altar of pacifism? Eleven years after 9/11 we have not substantially eliminated the threat of terrorism in the United States. Indeed, more than one government group has stated that the threat of terrorism is more diverse and just as formidable today as it was in 2001. So what freedoms did that soldier die for? We have spent a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives for what? What has been gained? I am unable to account for a thing.
How powerful is this sentiment? In American politics, I suggest our adventures in the Middle East would have been over years ago if it had not been for the powerful lever of Pro patria mori that has been pulled by politicians who benefit by the war’s continuance. Pro patria mori. Our fatherland is so wonderful that we sent [checking today’s news] 26-year-old Matthew H. Stiltz to his death. Sgt. Stiltz would not have died if we had come to our senses years ago. But we didn’t. To vacate our mission in the middle east is to admit it was wrong to begin with. The parents of lost soldiers go bellicose at the thought, and insodoing pass their pain on to others.
There might be very practical reasons why the U.S. has a military presence in the Middle East. Those reasons probably have a lot more to do with the price of a gallon of gas, and a lot less to do with freedom. But those reasons don’t fit nicely into a sound bite, and aren’t as effective at recruiting the all-volunteer army we seem to need. (“Uncle Sam needs YOU to keep a gallon of gas under $5.) Moreover, there are probably ways to achieve the same goals that don’t involve blood. But, given the benefit achieved by a few industry warlords, and the political clout some politicians can gain by tickling American emotions, bloody conflict is the way we choose to meet those aims. And those scoundrels rely on the vast majority of us to stand and salute the honor of sending our sons and daughters to die for our freedom.
I’ll have no part of that lie.