Here in the United States we have just celebrated Memorial Day, a day when we justly honor the men and women who fought in our myriad wars. And today in the United States, we perpetually seem to be in a war or on verge of fighting them. This is what revisionist historian Harry Elmer Barnes used to call “a perpetual war for a perpetual peace.” These current dangers include President Trump’s threat to take military action against North Korea or the United States bringing more NATO forces to the border of Russia or the problems between U.S. allies and China in the South China Sea.
As the son of a World War II veteran—a wonderful kind man called Alfred Bresiger, who walked with a slight limp, a reminder of his time in the Pacific on a dangerous island known as Okinawa—I believe we should honor these selfless people. These men and women were and are everyday heroes. However, as a student of history, I don’t agree that all these wars were necessary to “protect our freedoms.” Some, perhaps many, were not.
That’s because many of these wars were avoidable and the war spirit can often, in retrospect, be seen as reckless and insane (I can remember as a young man hearing some pro-Vietnam War advocates say that, if the North Vietnamese Communists weren’t stopped in Vietnam, that Hawaii would be the next target of Communist threats. That was an incredibly inane argument but during the heated times of the Vietnam War and the Cold War normally rational people would often fall for flawed arguments, especially when many Americans knew little or nothing about distant parts of the war where our supposed “vital interests” were at stake).
Hence Americans were often misled about the need for these wars. It has become a constant and, for me, a depressing theme of American history. Presidents from Lyndon Johnson to James Polk to William McKinley to George W. Bush blundered or misled the nation and we were at war. Remember Bush’s weapons of mass destruction claim as the justification for the Iraqi War of 2003?
Bush in his memoirs concedes they were never found. (Unlike his vice president, Dick Cheney, he basically concedes that the war was unnecessary) Yellow journalists, or journalists with no sense of history, drove public opinion to the wrong conclusions et viola—Americans were suddenly dying in wars that often were misunderstood.
Another Purpose for the Day
This is why I believe that Memorial Day—besides honoring the millions of courageous men and women who served in the armed forces—should also be a time to reflect on these wars, their causes and results. In the end, can we look into the faces of the widows and their families and in good conscience justify having sent their husbands, wives, sons and daughters into harm’s way? These are reasonable questions. They are questions that should be posed by people and nations who want to learn from history, not repeat its mistakes.
Possibly, we should also have a day in which we remember that too many of these wars were useless; that the lives of these extraordinary men and women shouldn’t have been thrown away in wars that could have been avoided. We should remember that the costs of war are more than economic, although the latter is considerable. These costs of war, the damage they do to the national psyche and culture of an otherwise peaceful people, can go on for generations, even centuries.
Wars should never be entered into gaily, with grandiose claims as though one had a few beers on a Sunday afternoon and was rooting for one’s favorite team. Only later, after the slaughter of war has done its worst, does peace begin to be appreciated. Unfortunately, it is too late to save so many. For instance, many Europeans, after a 99-year period without a general continent-wide war from 1815-1914, made incredible strides in living standards for almost everyone. Why? One reason is there had been no major wars. Using this principle, one sees why Switzerland, whose armed forces are only used to protect its nation and which doesn’t belong to any alliance, has high living standards.
“Oh, What a Lovely War!”
Yet many of these Europeans entered into the World War I in August 1914 as though it was the greatest thing in the world. Barbara Tuchman in her book, “The Guns of August,” wrote of how many nations joyfully embraced war. And Roy Jenkins, in his biography of Asquith—the British prime minister at the outset of the war but not when the war was over—-recorded a young Winston Churchill’s glee when the war began. Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, thought the war would be exciting. By the way, he wouldn’t be First Lord for very long, after Britain blundered early in the war on his plan to help the Russians through what would turn out to be a botched campaign in the Dardanelles.
Americans on both sides of the American Civil War marched off to mass death in 1861 with boastful claims of how they would quickly march off to victory and glory would be achieved.
Four years later hundreds of thousands of Americans were dead, often at the hands of their brothers, neighbors and former friends. I admire the courage of these men. Still, I bemoan the uselessness of a war, any war, that might be avoided since the North was not committed to the ending of slavery in the first year and a half of the war even though the Industrial Revolution ensured that slavery was going to die. Even backward Russia was abolishing slavery.
When the North won the war wide swaths of the South had been gutted. William T. Sherman’s had pioneered a new way of war—-total war—-in which whole cities and towns were destroyed; in which civilians, once protected under the rules of war, were killed and in which towns were razed and the work of generations of commerce—the latter is the opposite of war—were ruined. (A wonderful book called “Sherman’s Ghosts” details this sea change in the wagging of war. It notes the long-term consequences of this win at any cost strategy. The feral approach of total war impressed a Spanish general, Wyler, who claimed Sherman as his inspiration in carrying out atrocities against the Cuban during a rebellion in the late 19th century).
Grant the Butcher
When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox “victory” had been achieved. It was not glorious. In fact, the slaughter on both sides in this war, amazed and startled European observers. Indeed, a military historian, Walter Mills’, in his book “Arms and Man. A Study of American Military History,” quotes one civil war veteran as saying that “a unit that had lost no more than 10 percent of its strength in any major action of the Civil War would have been regarded as having been hardly seriously engaged. In the big Civil War battles casualties of 50 percent for units were not unusual and of 80 or 90 percent were not unheard of.” Inexperienced generals, who hadn’t adjusted to the changes in firepower brought about by the Industrial Revolution, threw away lives. The same mistakes were made by many generals in World War I, another total war in which, when it was over, it seemed the victors were as bad off as the losers.
No wonder Grant, one of the most “successful” of Union generals, was actually one of the most controversial. That’s even though he ultimately was arguably the most successful general of the war.
Grant was condemned by some in the North by for his considerable losses. Some called him “the Butcher.” The Civil War was a hollow victory. How many of these victories of these American wars have been hollow? GregoryBresiger.com. proposes to examine that in our next installment. Please visit us soon.