Not So Happy Memorial Day From A National Security Contrarian

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Back a thousand or so years ago, you may be surprised to know that my undergraduate degree was a weird amalgam of Russian history, US-Soviet relations, and the 1980s version of security studies – unlike the 21st century version, we didn’t do terrorism or torture, and believe it or not, we were encouraged to question military spending priorities. I was actively recruited by several mostly sane military types to become a military intelligence guy. Can you imagine that? I still can’t, even more then 30 years later.

Yeah, like I said, a long long time ago. Fortunately, my saner side prevailed and I passed on the opportunity to join the uniformed ranks. Probably best for all concerned, ya think?

Within four years of my graduation from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, my degree was for all practical purposes useless – the Soviet Union didn’t exist any more, and security studies was seemingly dead too, at least until it was reincarnated as a neocon wet dream in 2001 after 9/11.

But even though I long ago swapped out military and foreign policy for law and politics, I still have strong – if outdated in many respects – opinions about national security and military issues. Sitting here this weekend, contemplating Memorial Day, I ran across a 2008 article in the New York Review of Books by the late – and I believe great – Tony Judt, a historian of the highest order, one who was as comfortable assessing current events in the context of history as he was discussing events long past.

Looking back at the 20th century, Judt attempted to assess “what have we learned?” from the horrors and calamities of the last century of the old millennium. He came to focus, as he often did, on the United States, his adopted country (he was a Brit by background). His words, even the better part of a decade later, still have a moral force and relevance that speak to our “new world” of terrorism and permanent war.

The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly “good wars.” The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.

This contrast merits statistical emphasis. In World War I the US suffered slightly fewer than 120,000 combat deaths. For the UK, France, and Germany the figures are respectively 885,000, 1.4 million, and over 2 million. In World War II, when the US lost about 420,000 armed forces in combat, Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the deaths of 58,195 Americans over the course of a war lasting fifteen years: but the French army lost double that number in six weeks of fighting in May–June 1940. In the US Army’s costliest engagement of the century—the Ardennes offensive of December 1944–January 1945 (the “Battle of the Bulge”)—19,300 American soldiers were killed. In the first twenty-four hours of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), the British army lost more than 20,000 dead. At the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army lost 750,000 men and the Wehrmacht almost as many.

With the exception of the generation of men who fought in World War II, the United States thus has no modern memory of combat or loss remotely comparable to that of the armed forces of other countries. But it is civilian casualties that leave the most enduring mark on national memory and here the contrast is piquant indeed. In World War II alone the British suffered 67,000 civilian dead. In continental Europe, France lost 270,000 civilians. Yugoslavia recorded over half a million civilian deaths, Germany 1.8 million, Poland 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 11.4 million. These aggregate figures include some 5.8 million Jewish dead. Further afield, in China, the death count exceeded 16 million. American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead.

As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies—seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.

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Ignorance of twentieth-century history does not just contribute to a regrettable enthusiasm for armed conflict. It also leads to a misidentification of the enemy. We have good reason to be taken up just now with terrorism and its challenge. But before setting out on a hundred-year war to eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth, let us consider the following. Terrorists are nothing new. Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century.

There have been anarchist terrorists, Russian terrorists, Indian terrorists, Arab terrorists, Basque terrorists, Malay terrorists, Tamil terrorists, and dozens of others besides. There have been and still are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, and Muslim terrorists. There were Yugoslav (“partisan”) terrorists settling scores in World War II; Zionist terrorists blowing up Arab marketplaces in Palestine before 1948; American-financed Irish terrorists in Margaret Thatcher’s London; US-armed mujahideen terrorists in 1980s Afghanistan; and so on.

No one who has lived in Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, the UK, or France, not to speak of more habitually violent lands, could have failed to notice the omnipresence of terrorists—using guns, bombs, chemicals, cars, trains, planes, and much else—over the course of the twentieth century and beyond. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the unleashing in September 2001 of homicidal terrorism within the United States. Even that was not wholly unprecedented: the means were new and the carnage unexampled, but terrorism on US soil was far from unknown over the course of the twentieth century.

But what of the argument that terrorism today is different, a “clash of cultures” infused with a noxious brew of religion and authoritarian politics: “Islamofascism”? This, too, is an interpretation resting in large part on a misreading of twentieth-century history. There is a triple confusion here. The first consists of lumping together the widely varying national fascisms of interwar Europe with the very different resentments, demands, and strategies of the (equally heterogeneous) Muslim movements and insurgencies of our own time—and attaching the moral credibility of the antifascist struggles of the past to our own more dubiously motivated military adventures.

There’s more, much more, that Judt has to say. But what it made me think, sitting here on Memorial Day, is how we’ve allowed 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan and the inevitable terrorist attacks in Europe and the US to change us in so many ways, none of them good. But let’s just talk for a moment about our military. Yes, we venerate our heroes, and in so many ways over our history that veneration has been well-deserved. But now, I submit that we too often use that respect and admiration as a crutch, an excuse to wage permanent war, to use up an entire generation of servicemen and women, to send them into harm’s way again and again and again without respite, without a well-defined mission, and most embarrassingly, without the equipment and materiel that they need to do the job we’ve tasked them with. All while we civilians are encouraged to carry on as “normal,” to shop and spend and live as if our military hasn’t spent the past decade and a half in an unprecedented period of open ended warfare in multiple theaters.

Worst of all, the decision makers creating our misguided policies are in so many cases utterly ignorant of what Tony Judt discusses, the horrors of war that every nation on this earth experienced to one degree or another during the 20th century. But we Americans didn’t, because of our greatest asset: our distance from Europe and Asia and Africa and so many other theaters of war. And that accident of geography has made us ignorant and thoughtless in the way we conduct our foreign affairs.

So my wish for Memorial Day is that we stop blinding ourselves to the consequences of our national security and military beliefs and the wars in which we express those beliefs. We are not exceptional, and the rules do apply to us too. We dishonor our history and we shame ourselves by the casual way we send our military around the world to wreak havoc, primarily in a vain effort to make ourselves feel more secure as a nation. Our troops deserve better, and so do we as a nation.

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