(November 11, 2019) — Once upon a time, a US president told his people they were fighting “a war to end all wars.” Only a handful of centenarians could possibly remember the false pretexts used to sell the “Great War” to the populace and how that same president imposed draconian “peace” conditions that made the even bloodier second World War all but inevitable.
A self-proclaimed progressive, President Woodrow Wilson not only ditched his anti-war credentials but suppressed free speech, the free press under the Espionage Act and civil liberties more generally. Peaceful war opposition became a crime, and many activists were jailed. Sound familiar?
If Lyndon Johnson cynically selling our citizenry the Vietnam War under false pretenses was a tragedy, then George W. Bush’s lies and obfuscations to justify the Iraq War qualified as farce. Next, Barack Obama swiftly disappointed progressives by escalating the Afghan War, helping orchestrate the bombing of Libya back to the Stone Age under the ruse of a “no-fly zone,” and multiplying drone assassinations, all while prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. In this context, Donald Trump’s presidency hardly constitutes a break from history.
Indeed, the legacy of World War I continues to resonate across generations, from the poetry of Robert Graves to the fiction of Ernest Hemingway. Veterans of the conflict celebrated Nov. 11, 1918, as Armistice Day, signifying a final cessation of state violence. Only after the venal governments of the wealthy plunged into World War II was the holiday renamed Veterans Day, and with it died its beautiful, dreamy meaning.
More than a century later, we find the euphemisms and outright deceits used to launch, sustain and normalize our “forever wars” have only multiplied across the nation’s think tanks and corporate media. At various junctures over the past 18 years, the political establishment, like Wilson before it, has defended warfare on humanitarian grounds. Washington now justifies the perpetual “war on terror” as a violent means to protect women’s rights, build democracy and, in George W. Bush’s Manichean words, defeat “evil.”
Few pundits or faux intellectuals ask whether Bush or his successors’ millenarian mission is even possible. Fewer still discern that each president’s rhetoric served only as cover for the true motive of regional hegemony. Of course, “nation-building’s” dirty little secret is this: as in Vietnam and the Middle East, the US military ultimately feels compelled to “bomb villages to save them.”
Enabled by a mostly apathetic public, hundreds of thousands of foreigners, mostly civilians, have been killed in our name, along with another 7,000 US troops we claim to adore. The $5.9 trillion in taxes used to finance these conflicts haven’t found their way into the pockets of our soldiers, who are paid just $30,000 a year to kill and die, but have enriched a handful of corporate war profiteers.
America’s wars assume an inertia all their own. The political-media power structure hardly questions why we’re fighting, but that won’t stop elites from praising the “service” and “sacrifice” of the troops this Veterans Day. They’ll use the veterans as props and pawns, as a cudgel to suppress dissent and smear anti-war activism as un-American or worse. It’s an old game we can’t afford to play any longer. Instead, let’s reclaim the true meaning of Armistice Day and forge a more peaceful world.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army major and author. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The L.A. Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, the Huffington Post and The Hill. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.”
Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI special agent and former Minneapolis Division legal counsel who testified to the 9/11 Joint Intelligence Committee inquiry and Senate Judiciary inquiry as a whistleblower, for which she was named one of Time Magazine’s 2002 Persons of the Year.
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