Once upon a time, a U.S. 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. He, of course, was Woodrow Wilson, a self-proclaimed “progressive,” who not only ditched his anti-war credentials but suppressed free speech, the free press (under the Espionage Act — still statute law today), and general civil liberties. Peaceful war opposition became a crime, and many activists were jailed.
Sound familiar? Take Lyndon Johnson’s cynical decision to sell the citizenry the Vietnam War under false pretenses. Then, if Karl Marx was right, and history repeats itself first as tragedy, next as farce, George W. Bush’s lies and obfuscations to justify the Iraq War must count as the latter. Next, Barack Obama swiftly disappointed progressives’ expectations when Mr. “hope and change” escalated the Afghan War, helped orchestrate the bombing of Libya back into the Stone Age (via the “No Fly Zone” ruse), multiplied drone assassinations, and — in a macabre nod to Wilson — prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. Seen in this sequential context, Donald Trump manifests as only the latest, most absurd, imperial president.
Thus, the legacy of World War I remains, resonating across passing generations. For all its carnage, all its domestic oppression, at least that conflict’s veterans stepped out of the trenches with hope for a better world. Much of the best anti-war poetry and prose of the past century, flowed from the pens of a “Lost Generation” of fed up vets — think Ernest Hemingway or Robert Graves — committed to ensuring theirs would be the world’s last war. All combatants celebrated the moment the guns had fallen silent, November 11, 1918, as Armistice Day, meant to signify a final cessation of state violence. Only decades later, when venal governments of the wealthy and powerful dashed their hopes, did the holiday transform into Veterans Day. The date’s dreamy, beautiful meaning, and hopes, died with that renaming.
A century and a year later, we find the euphemistic confabulations used to launch, sustain and normalize current “forever wars” have only multiplied and overtaken the nation’s political cadre, think tanks and corporate media. Sometime in the past 18 years, the post-9/11 “War on Terrorism” garnered “humanitarian” justifications quite similar to Wilson’s old rhetoric. Washington now justifies perpetual war as a violent means to protect women’s rights, build democracy, and, in Bush’s Manichaean words, defeat “evil.”
Few pundits or faux intellectuals ask whether Bush’s (or his successors’) millenarian mission is 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, so in the Mid-East, the U.S. military ultimately feels compelled to “bomb villages to save them.” Enabled by a mostly apathetic public — yet in our name — hundreds of thousands of foreigners (mostly civilians) have been killed, along with nearly 7,000 of America’s ever-so-adulated soldiers. Furthermore, the at least $5.9
trillion tax dollars wasted hasn’t much profited the combat troops paid $30,000 a year to kill and die, but certainly enriched corporate war profiteers.
America’s wars take on an inertia all their own. The political-media power structure hardly questions the why and wherefore, but undoubtedly, this Veterans Day, these elites will loudly — if vapidly — praise the “service” and “sacrifice” of the troops. They’ll use the veterans, as props and pawns, as a cudgel to suppress dissent and equate anti-war activism with un-Americanism. It’s an old game — don’t fall for it! Reclaim the true dream of Armistice Day: a more peaceful world.
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Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army major and author. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel. She 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. They recently spoke at the University of Iowa.