“They died for their country,” read the white granite memorial in the Concord, Massachusetts town square, honoring local men who died in the Civil War. Newer headstones mourned Concord men who gave their lives in other wars -- practically every war America has fought -- belying the recent baiting of quintessentially blue-state Massachusetts as a place whose citizens lack patriotism. I was in town, on the first anniversary of Sept 11, speaking at a local church that had lost one of its most active members on a hijacked plane, a man named Al Filipov. It was clear then -- and clearer now -- that these honored dead would not be our nation's last. I thought of Concord when George Bush urged us, this past Memorial Day, to redeem the sacrifices of our soldiers in Iraq by "completing the mission for which they gave their lives." But what if this mission (which will, of course, claim more lives) itself is questionable, and founded on a basis of lies? Forty-eight Concord men died in the Civil War, which the memorial called "the War of the Rebellion." They indeed died for their country, turning the tide at battles like Gettysburg and helping end the brutal oppression of slavery. The World War II vets, listed on a nearby plaque, helped preserve the freedom of America -- and the world. We owe a profound debt to the farmers and artisans who won our freedom in America's Revolution, and whose sacrifices were marked, a few miles away, with an exhibit on the battles of Lexington and Concord. It's easy for those who have lived through too many dubious wars to forget the power of their sacrifices.
But not all the Concord deaths served such lofty purposes. Three Concord men died "in the service of their country" during the Spanish-American war. This war of empire took 600,000 lives alone in our subsequent occupation of the Philippines and our suppression of the first Asian republic, prompting Mark Twain to suggest that the Filipinos adopt a modified version of our flag "with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones." Five Concord men died in Vietnam joining 58,000 other Americans, one to two million Vietnamese, and four million who died after we overthrew a long-neutral Cambodian government and paved the way for Pol Pot. One died in our 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, which helped prevent the return of a democratically elected president and installed a corrupt oligarch who would rule for nearly three decades.
The American soldiers who died in these wars were as brave as their compatriots in the Civil War or World War II. They undoubtedly had as much integrity in their personal lives. But their courage and sacrifice made the world neither safer nor freer. Since my visit to Concord, the memorial has added another name, a 25-year-old first lieutenant, killed a month after our forces rolled into Iraq in March of 2003, around the time that Bush spoke under that "mission accomplished" banner on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln
It's tempting to assume that all the sacrifices of our soldiers are worthwhile. But mere courage guarantees no inherent moral rightness: German and Japanese soldiers fought bravely in World War II. The September 11 hijackers were willing to surrender their lives to murder 3,000 innocent people, including Al Filipov, whose widow would initiate the peace and justice lecture series where I spoke. Even when we're told our soldiers are fighting for freedom, we have to look at the broadest consequences of their actions. For instance, an international Pew Center survey right after our Iraqi invasion found that we'd so embittered the Islamic world that majorities to near-majorities in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt now said they trusted Osama bin Laden "to do the right thing in world affairs." They now viewed him as a hero, not a murderer.
Unfortunately, those who initiated the Iraq war now use each additional American death to justify the need to stay. If we challenge this war, we're told we're being disloyal to the troops, undermining their resolve and disdaining their sacrifices. We heard this as well during Vietnam, after which the media rewrote the history of the antiwar movement to imply, through images like protestors spitting on soldiers, that those working to bring the troops home were their enemies.
By time the first Gulf War began, these images were omnipresent. Even young anti-war activists told me, "We won't spit on the soldiers this time." Yet when sociologists Jerry Starr and Richard Flacks, who worked extensively with Vietnam vets, tried to track down the story, they couldn't find a single incident of a vet who said he was actually spat upon. And when syndicated columnist Bob Greene invited responses on the subject in a column that reached 200 papers, he found only a handful.
The power of such useful myths may erode as military families and veterans play an increasingly visible role in the current antiwar movement, though veterans and families played a key part in the Vietnam-era peace movement as well. Every time I've marched against this war, I've ended up next to someone carrying a picture of a relative in uniform, a son or brother, husband, nephew, or niece, often someone facing the involuntary servitude of being unable to leave the military long after his or her original service term had expired. But unless we can convince our fellow citizens to separate the lives of the soldiers from the policies that place them in harm's way, they'll continue to be held hostage to the choices of leaders who are insulated from the human costs
So let's remember the debt we owe to those who have died for freedom as well as those who risk and sacrifice in the name of protecting us all. But not all wartime deaths advance human dignity, and not all sacrifices are worthwhile. If those who die for a worthy cause are indeed heroes to be honored, those who send our brave young men and women to die in wars of empire and dominion squander their courage, their trust, and ultimately their lives. To use their losses to justify further needless deaths is to betray the best of what the soldiers enlist to protect. For not all of America's wars have been worth dying in, nor are those we now fight.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books, 2004), winner of the Nautilus Award for best social change book of last year. He's also the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time and three other books. This piece originated on TomDisptach.com.
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