Memorial Day is not only a day to honor those who have died defending our freedom but also a time to reflect on events that have led, and that lead, to war. To protect our future we must be informed about our past.
This Memorial Day marks the anniversaries of our two longest military engagements since World War II — the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq.
A plethora of new documentaries have commemorated the 40th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam. Even today it is painful to recall the horrific casualties of this pointless war and the divisions that it created in the United States. We see touching stories of American veterans returning to Vietnam to bring closure to their own experiences.
I see my own brother suffering the effects of Agent Orange from his 1962 tour in Vietnam with the first force of Marines, years before Vietnam went from advisers to a full combat theater.
Our presence in Vietnam started on a plausible policy called the “domino theory.” That is, if one country fell to the Communists the rest of the region would surely follow. By 1964, the policy needed some muscle behind it, and so the Tonkin incident was fabricated, resulting in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which led to the massive escalation of American troops in South Vietnam.
It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth, and we learned how true that is with the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Our government’s stated goals in South Vietnam, we learned, were lies, yet our leaders persisted in escalating in spite of growing opposition to the war. As a result, the United States dropped more bombs on this small country that is now a popular tourist destination, than we did during all of World War II. There were more than 58,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese killed in Vietnam. These are large numbers in any instance, but especially given that so much justification was simply manufactured by the government.
In 1968, at the University of Miami, many students learned pretty quickly that the Coral Gables draft board had, shall we say, a progressive attitude towards draft deferrals. Of course, poor African Americans had less access to this kind of information and were drafted in disproportionate numbers.
My opposition to the war manifested itself in political organizing for Bobby Kennedy and then in 1972 for George McGovern. It was so conflicting to love your country but detest its policies and leadership. The anti-war movement was driven by the children of the Greatest Generation, and we had a romantic belief that we could end war and then change the world. But we didn’t.
There is another anniversary this year. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 25 years ago, America began what appears to be a permanent military presence in the Middle East. We were there to save Kuwait. But why? It seemed right at the time, but Kuwait wasn’t a democracy then and it isn’t today.
In 2003, we invaded Iraq on another great lie: It had weapons of mass destruction. Today, trillions of dollars and countless lives later, Iraq is a mess, and the fall of Saddam certainly didn’t lead to democracy’s spread in the Middle East. Our actions helped spawn a region dissolving into terrorist tribes.
With a volunteer army, we once again have a disproportionate number of poorer Americans carrying the burden. Thousands of American soldiers come home suffering post-traumatic stress disorders, finding no relief in a flawed healthcare system.
In Vietnam we were propping up a corrupt government. If that sounds familiar it should, Our “Arab allies” in the Middle East are absolute monarchs or dictators, most of whom secretly funnel money to the terrorists in hopes of diverting the attention of the United States. Most Americans rightly are confused about our role in a region dominated by religious and cultural values different from ours.
This Memorial Day we need to better understand the consequences of our foreign policy, especially in the Mideast. It might save some lives. The alternative is to face the same humiliating exit we did from another region 40 years ago.