LOS ANGELES--On Veteran's Day, Kyle Burns of Laramie, Wyoming lost his life in Iraq. At his memorial service, the Associated Press reported, he was remembered "as a marine who died for his country." Another fallen American was honored in Topeka the same week. Clinton Wisdom, said a reporter for Channel 13 news, was "a soldier who had died for his country." There was another service in Belington, West Virginia, for Romulo Jiminez, killed at age 21 in Fallujah. "He not only died for his country, he died for each one of us individually to preserve freedom," said the funeral director. Wisconsin lost three men in Iraq that week, including Todd Cornel, 38. "What he did was what he wanted to do, and he died for his country, for our freedom," said his father.
Did he? Have any of the Iraq war dead really "died for their country"?
At a time when every other Arab oil-guzzling SUV bears a yellow "support our troops" sticker and probable antiwar liberal Dan Rather "salutes fallen heroes" of Iraq on the evening news, the red-blue divide hasn't altered traditional perceptions of military service. But with 1,500 U.S. soldiers dead in Afghanistan and Iraq and influential Bushists calling for invading Iran, the question bears asking: What does it mean to fight (or die) for the United States?
When we hear that soldiers fight for our country, we immediately think of their role guarding our borders, protecting us from invaders. Yet the United States has only been invaded twice, when Great Britain attempted to bring us back into the colonial fold during the War of 1812 and in 1846, when Mexico launched a brief incursion across the disputed Rio Grande. During the ensuing 158 years, no member of the U.S. military has fought or died while repelling an invader. Sept. 11 demonstrated that the Pentagon doesn't consider a foreign incursion a major threat; that's why they assigned 12 "ground-based" Air National Guard jets to guard the entire country.
If you participate in a war of retribution, are you "fighting for your country"? There have only been four attacks on American soil by a foreign power. All were carried out by Japan during World War II: Pearl Harbor, the now-forgotten submarine strafing of a California oil refinery, balloon-borne bombs dropped without casualties on Oregon and Washington state, and an air raid on Dutch Harbor, a remote U.S. outpost on Alaska's Aleutian Islands, in which 43 residents died. Japan and Germany's declarations of war intuitively appear to justify the sacrifice of 291,557 American soldiers in World War II, but were those deaths necessary to defend us? There is no evidence that the Axis intended to invade the United States, nor did it possess the logistical capability to occupy it. The defeat of Nazism liberated millions from tyranny, but that was a happy byproduct of a war we fought to expand our military and economic influence. Right or wrong, World War II was a war of choice against Germany and one of retribution against Japan.
What about avenging an attack, not on U.S. soil, but against an American facility overseas? In 1986 President Reagan ordered bombings in Libya in retaliation for the bombing of a German disco that killed off-duty American soldiers. Muammar Gaddafi's young daughter, among others, were killed. Subsequent intelligence proved that Libya had had nothing to do with the nightclub attack, but--even setting that aside--it's a stretch to argue that the pilots who bombed Libya were "fighting for their country." Moreover, even retaliatory strikes don't occur frequently. The most recent bona fide assault on a foreign asset by another country took place in 1979 when Iranians took over the American embassy in Tehran. U.S. overseas assets are rarely attacked.
The truth is, U.S. troops are hardly ever called upon to defend the territory of the U.S. or its outposts--military bases, embassies and consulates. Of the approximately 250 deployments of U.S. armed forces since 1798, the majority have been preemptive actions against possible future threats, or wars of aggression waged to advance American geopolitical interests.
During the Korean, Vietnam and first Gulf wars 81,243 American soldiers died in combat. True, had the United States not gotten involved, a unified Korea might be suffering under the dictatorship of Kim Jung Il and Kuwait could be Iraq's 19th province. But those problems wouldn't have been ours. The snuffing out of over 80,000 young lives didn't do anything to make the United States safer, but that wasn't the point. We lost in Vietnam and made a friend; we won in Korea and created our most dangerous enemy today.
For one American president after another, winning or losing doesn't matter. For an empire, military action is its own reward. Our willingness to wage war intimidates adversaries and their neighbors into giving us what we want: cheaper oil, military bases, favorable trading terms. When American sailors invaded the Falkland Islands in 1832, it was "to defend American interests." Ditto for 1855, when U.S. forces stormed Fiji. Ditto for the 1903 Dominican Republic action (where defending U.S. interests meant suppressing a popular revolution), Honduras in 1911, the Soviet Union in 1918, Lebanon in 1953 ... you get the idea. The soldiers who fought in those invasions were told they were fighting for their country. Those who lost their lives were called heroes.
Repeating a lie doesn't make it true.
Now we're at it again, this time in Iraq, a nation that would never have invaded us. Everyone, even the Bushists who manufactured the war from whole cloth, admits that Iraq never had weapons that could hurt us or means to hit us with them if they had. And we know that they didn't attack us--not on 9/11, not ever. Our soldiers may be doing their duty, fighting fiercely, and giving their lives in the bargain. But since Iraq neither threatens our freedom nor our borders, they're neither protecting our freedoms or fighting for America. The best anyone can say is that they're fighting for our country's geopolitical interests--and what those are is subject to interpretation.
"Private died for his country's geopolitical interests." Huh. Doesn't quite have the same ring.
Ted Rall is the author of two new books, Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.
Copyright 2004 Ted Rall
Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall
Ted Rall online: www.rall.com