Mr. Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.
Washington, D.C., is ever the city of contradictions. Eloquent speeches about freedom by legislators voting to limit liberty. Emotional promises to aid the needy from policymakers whose actions cause poverty and destroy families. Heartfelt tributes to military veterans from politicians who treat soldiers as gambit pawns in a global chess game.
The latter becomes particularly stark on Memorial Day, always the most poignant of holidays. It is a celebration, but of a peculiar kind: remembering the enormous sacrifice by millions of Americans who have served, and all too often died, in war. And such sacrifices may not be over.
Some conflict is probably inevitable given a world full of imperfect nation-states headed by sinful human beings. But today, mercifully, the dangers facing the United States are slight. The primary risks to Americans result from Washington’s continuing desire to intervene around the globe irrespective of the nation’s fundamental security interests.
Memorial Day this year, like those before it, had the obligatory presidential visit and wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The rhetoric was also the same—a paean to past soldiers’ willingness to safeguard Americans’ freedom. Although the international record of the United States compares well to that of other nations, it remains a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
America has fought four ugly wars, ones at least partially inspired by the sort of base motives that Washington usually ascribes to other countries. Another four were bad, undercutting, rather than promoting, the national interest. Only two can claim to be good.
Barely three decades after winning its independence, the United States found itself again at war with Great Britain. Washington had legitimate grounds for war—British warships routinely “impressed” (a form of government kidnapping) American citizens off U.S. vessels in order to man its fleets. But the most obvious trigger for war occurred in 1807 when a British warship fired on an American ship that refused to stop and be searched. Five years then passed. When war came in 1812, the so-called war hawks seemed motivated more by the prospect of seizing Canada than of righting maritime wrongs.
In 1846 came war with Mexico, perhaps America’s most unjust conflict. Criticized at the time by future Civil War figures Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee, the conflict was a war of aggression to wrest the territory now comprising California, Arizona, and New Mexico from America’s southern neighbor. The bravery of the U.S. soldiers cannot compensate for President James Knox Polk’s dubious motives.
America came of age as an imperial power when it defeated Spain in 1898. Although popular opinion was aroused through sensationalistic (and often false) reporting of the brutal conflict between Spanish forces and Cuban guerrillas, President William McKinley wanted control of the Philippines and future president Theodore Roosevelt simply wanted war. That more than selfless concern for Cuba’s liberation animated America is evident from President McKinley’s insistence that Spain cede Guam and the Philippines to America.
Even uglier than the Spanish-American war was the three-year conflict that followed as Washington defeated Filipino nationalists. Nothing except national greed motivated Washington to suppress a foreign independence movement with policies even crueler than those used by Spain in Cuba. Two hundred thousand Filipinos died in the devastating conflict, conducted for the sole purpose of preserving a Pacific outpost for American military forces.
The Civil War was bad. Although the welcome end of slavery has given an enduring moral gloss to the conflict, President Abraham Lincoln repeatedly emphasized that union rather than abolition was his goal, and the outer four southern states, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, seceded only after Lincoln called out troops to invade the other seven. Any political union should be voluntary; no such ties are worth 630,000 lives. Peaceful separation was the right solution.
American participation in World War I, an imperial slugfest devoid of relevance to the United States, was equally stupid. The great anti-Semitic despotism of Tsarist Russia and revenge-minded France (which had actually declared war first in the Franco-Prussian War some four decades earlier) were as much at fault as Wilhelmine Germany and unstable Austria-Hungary in starting the war. The supposed chief victim, Serbia, was a blood-stained regime that used terrorism against neighboring Austria-Hungary. The formal justification for American entry in the conflict—to protect the right of U.S. citizens to travel on merchant ships of a belligerent power carrying munitions through a war zone—was simply inane. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson wanted America in so he could reorder the world. Washington should have stayed out.
There were no interests at stake that warranted U.S. intervention in Vietnam. That Ho Chi Minh was not a second Hitler and Asia was not ready to fall to communism is evident from the fact that two decades after America’s humiliating ejection from Vietnam, international hegemonic communism has disappeared and the entire region, including Vietnam, is looking toward the United States.
Similarly bad was the Gulf War. There was no compelling reason to make the region safe for monarchy, since Iraq’s threat to the world’s oil supply was overstated. And the oil embargo was sufficient to deny Baghdad any benefit from its conquest. Today the United States remains ensnared in the Persian Gulf, standing behind odious regimes like that of Saudi Arabia.
America’s best conflicts were World War II, against potential hegemons that actually attacked (in the case of Japan) and declared war on (as did Germany) the United States. The Korean War can claim some legitimacy not because Washington had any fundamental interest in the Korean peninsula, but because America had helped bring about the conditions that led to the war and could not easily walk away.
With such a dubious record of sending good people to fight for bad causes, Washington should be less promiscuous today in committing American servicemen to defend other countries. Yet U.S. soldiers are currently stationed in the Balkans, attempting to put back together the Humpty Dumpty state of Bosnia. A bipartisan coalition wants to expand NATO deep into Central and Eastern Europe, so Americans will defend the borders of the Czech Republic, Poland, and who knows who else. Policymakers are similarly committed to staying in East Asia, apparently forever, even though America’s allies are now all well able to defend themselves.
The sad reality is that many of the enormous sacrifices made by so many young Americans had nothing to do with freedom. This was not the fault of those who fought and died, but of the political leaders who sent them. For two centuries American politicians have been treating the lives of American servicemen far too cheaply.