The United States has never fought a foreign war it could not probably have avoided. The War of 1812 against England was driven by so-called war hawks who eyed territorial expansion in Canada. The Mexican-American War was provoked by us with the clear intention — called “Manifest Destiny” — of conquering what is now the American Southwest and Pacific coast. The Spanish-American War was intended to complete the dismantling of the Spanish Empire that began with the Monroe Doctrine by taking Cuba and the faraway Philippine Islands. President Woodrow Wilson promised American neutrality in World War I, only to back the Allies financially and militarily from its outset and, five months after winning reelection on the slogan of “He kept us out of war,” declaring war on Imperial Germany. The attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan was the culmination of nearly a hundred years of American expansion in the Pacific which made conflict there inevitable. Protecting that sector of our postwar empire in Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia led us into wars in Korea and Vietnam, though no nation had attacked us. The Afghan War, which still continues, was a diversion from dealing with the real state actor involved in the 9/11 attacks, Saudi Arabia. The Iraq War, which destabilized the entire Middle East and led to several failed states, was based on a bald-faced lie. It is arguable, at least, that no American soldier need ever have died fighting on foreign soil.
We have recently heard that, while in Europe two years ago to commemorate the centennial of the end of World War I, Donald Trump declined to visit the American military cemetery at Aisnes-Marne because his hair might be mussed in the rain, and described the 1,800 soldiers who fell at the Battle of Belleau Wood as losers and suckers. One expects anything of the crudity and inhumanity of Trump, but that all but exceeded imagination.
Soldiers who die in bad and unnecessary wars, as most of ours have been, deserve the elemental regard we give to all those who have lost their lives in battle: the respect due to the fallen. We may regret, and bitterly, the reasons why they fell, and the lives they perhaps took before losing their own; we may, as humanists or pacifists, regret all war. But we do not sneer at their graves.
Trump’s indecency does, however, raise a question. What, generically, should we call soldiers who die in battle? The war that absorbed my generation was Vietnam. It was a war that seemed to many who opposed it not only wrong but wicked. The soldiers who returned alive from it were sometimes greeted with scorn and hostility, or at least suspicion. We had all heard of atrocities such as My Lai, and knew them to be only the tip of an iceberg. We could not, looking at any returning veteran, fail to wonder what he might have done in the war. We could not, also, help being ashamed for all the veterans, and for ourselves.
I never abused a veteran; I understood all who had fought in Vietnam, many against their will, as abused themselves. It nonetheless took me some time to regard them as my fellow countrymen again. I say this with some shame of my own. I’m not sure just how to describe the veterans who come home from our wars today. “Ex-servicemen” doesn’t seem to cut it. Those who come home with what we call PTSD — “shell-shock” was the more graphic World War I term — might be thought of as victims in some sort, as I finally thought of Vietnam veterans. But that’s sort of patronizing too, and it erases an important distinction, namely the one between soldiers who fight and civilians who suffer.
As for those who come back in body bags, they are of course the fallen. But that description, which applies generically to those lost in all wars, doesn’t seem satisfactory either. There is one term, though, that as used nowadays seems particularly self-serving and offensive, at least to me. I refer to the universal characterization of our war veterans as heroes. A hero, in my book, is someone who saves or protects others at risk to him or herself in circumstances we regard as praiseworthy. Not all such deeds meet this criterion. A bank robber who rescues his fellow robbers from capture is daring, but not heroic. Typically, we regard one of our own soldiers who singlehandedly kills or captures many of the enemy as a hero. But an enemy soldier who does the same to our soldiers is simply an enemy. We may recognize such a soldier as brave, but we do not regard him as heroic. The circumstances define our judgment. The act cannot simply be courageous or even self-sacrificing. The cause, when there is one, must be just.
When everyone is defined as heroic in a war by the mere fact of having participated in it, however, the idea loses any capacity to denote individuals, and applies itself simply to the war as such. If all the wars we fight are heroic — that is, just, necessary, and, as all such wars must be, ultimately triumphant — then, ipso facto, there can be nothing but heroes fighting them. This — the unspeakable vulgarity aside — is what made Trump’s dismissal of the war dead at Belleau Wood so shocking.
He was saying they had wasted their lives in a war not only without gain to themselves but anyone else, profiteers excepted. It was a horrible way to speak the truth, but, especially coming from this Prince of Liars, it conveyed truth. World War I was a suicidal war for all concerned, and it begat nothing but a bigger, deadlier war 20 years later. Had we ourselves not fought in it, it would probably have ended in a negotiated settlement, and World War II might have been averted.
The dead at Belleau Wood were part of a tragedy, not an achievement. Some of them may indeed have been valorous, but their deeds died with them, and they were, in the longer perspective of history, in vain. It does not honor those who have fallen in our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to call them heroes, but the reverse: it exploits them.
A principal case in point is the well-known story of Pat Tillman, the NFL tackle who, turning down a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist in the Afghan War, was purportedly killed by enemy fire in 2004. Tillman was posthumously lionized as the ideal American patriot, who voluntarily gave up fame and fortune to fight for his country. But the Taliban hadn’t killed him. After an elaborate coverup that involved the war’s senior commanding generals, his death was found to have come from friendly fire in the heat of combat. This was embarrassing, but not the actual story either. The pattern of wounds on his body indicated that he had been shot at close range, not in battle. His body armor was burned to conceal evidence, and his diary, now believed to have documented his disillusionment and disgust with the war, was confiscated. He was, in fact, planning to denounce it. That was unacceptable. All evidence now points to the bitter conclusion of Tillman’s father: “They blew up their poster boy.”
It is now sixteen years since Tillman’s death, and nineteen since the war in Afghanistan began. Since it is a heroic war, filled with heroes like Pat Tillman, it can only end in victory; but since it has in fact long been lost, its only option is to continue. Even heroes may tire of that. American politicians, so far, have not.