On Veterans Day this year we witnessed a larger-than-usual outpouring of public respect and praise for veterans. Although I’m a veteran myself I feel uneasy about such displays.
It is certainly appropriate to honor veterans, and to recognize the sacrifices of those who have served in the military—especially if this means more care and support for the many wounded warriors who will face medical and psychological challenges the rest of their lives.
I am troubled, however, by the other part of the Veterans Day message—the notion that we owe our freedom as Americans to those who serve in the military. We see it on bumper stickers: “If you love freedom, thank a vet.” This is a theme that resonates strongly with most Americans.
The role of military service as a bulwark of freedom was true in the days of World War II, when our soldiers fought against Nazism and militarism and helped to liberate much of Europe and East Asia. But does this apply today in reference to military service in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq?
It doesn’t matter, some will say. The soldier answers the call to duty whatever the mission. This is what we honor on Veterans Day. That is true, but it is worth asking nonetheless whether the duty to which our soldiers have been called in recent decades truly advances our national interest.
Exactly how have the recent wars our soldiers have fought helped to make America freer and safer? Vietnam, which ended in failure? Iraq, which was predicated on a lie? Afghanistan, where the Taliban persists? Is our country really better off for having fought these wars?
These military interventions have not produced peace and order, but violence and chaos. In the case of Iraq our invasion and occupation resulted in more virulent forms of jihadi terrorism and insurgency.
This is not to question the bravery and idealism of those who serve. The problem is not with our soldiers and veterans but with political leaders who use the military for dubious purposes, for missions that are unworthy of the heroism of our troops.
So let’s honor our veterans, but let’s also be honest about the battles in which they have been ordered to serve. The best way to honor and respect our troops is not to send them on unnecessary and unwinnable wars.