Another Veterans Day has come and gone. The parades are over, and so are the countless speeches expressing gratitude to all the men and women who have worn the uniform of our armed forces. Personally, I’d like the superficial daily honors offered to all active duty soldiers and veterans to end, too. It seems to me that applying a bright and shiny stereotype all the time enables us to escape our greater responsibility to them, which is to make sure our nation goes to war only as a last resort.
This truth is memorialized in the Presidential Proclamation that changed the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Americans to “solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly … to preserve our heritage of freedom.” He went on to say, “let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
Most of the wars America has fought since then have not been about preserving our freedom. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 certainly wasn’t. Nor was the Vietnam War. And it would be laughable to imagine that Panama and Grenada posed any threat at all to America. But we invaded them anyway.
I’m not calling those wars unjust as a way to question the dedication and bravery of any soldier who served in them. I’m arguing that we’ve failed to keep the peace because too many Americans are either apathetically detached from or have passively supported our government’s war-making policies.
The constitutional responsibility over matters of war and peace lies with the civilian political leadership in our government because the founders knew we couldn’t trust career military officers in that regard. That’s partly because not all officers gain the kind of experience that would qualify them for making such serious decisions.
Before he became president, George W. Bush was one such officer. Questionable or not, his National Guard duty didn’t prepare for him understanding the consequences of sending troops to war. And it may be why he still lacks the fortitude to admit that invading Iraq was an unmitigated disaster.
His father’s story is different. As one of the youngest pilots in World War II, George H.W. Bush flew 58 combat missions, some of them after being shot down while attacking the Japanese navy. And whether or not you agree with his decision to use military force against Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, his combat experience may explain why he chose not to expand that war by ordering troops to Baghdad to remove Hussein from power.
Curtis LeMay is another World War II pilot remembered for his courage. As a lieutenant colonel he fearlessly led dozens of bombing missions over France and Germany. But he was also an instrumental figure in ordering the firebombing which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dresden, Hamburg, Kobe and Tokyo.
“You drop a load of bombs,” he wrote in his autobiography “and, if you’re cursed with any imagination at all you have at least one quick horrid glimpse of a child lying in bed with a whole ton of masonry tumbling down on top of him. … Then you have to turn away from the picture if you intend to retain your sanity. And also if you intend to keep on doing the work your Nation expects of you.”
As a general, LeMay took his conscienceless imagination into the Pentagon where he served as the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. There he unsuccessfully urged President John F. Kennedy to bomb the Soviet Union’s nuclear missile sites in Cuba. He also argued to use nuclear weapons against the Communists who were infiltrating into South Vietnam from Laos.
Officers like LeMay would sacrifice America’s soul to the perverse glory of war. That kind of military leadership creates the slippery slope where, like My Lai in Vietnam and Haditha in Iraq, U.S. troops ruthlessly killed innocent women and children. Any officer who would even hint that such massacres are a natural extension of war isn’t deserving of our respect and admiration.
These three aviators give us a microcosmic glimpse into the makeup of our military. They are not all noble and humane warriors just by virtue of wearing an American uniform. Believing that is as morally dangerous as the negative stereotypes used to justify violent crimes against people of different races and religious faiths.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.