Since the Vietnam War, in which returning draftees were shunned by much of American society, critics of U.S. foreign policy, including the Iraq war, have bent over backwards not to criticize U.S. military forces and sometimes have even praised soldiers’ willingness to fight for their country. And, of course, journalists and politicians have slathered nothing but praise on American boys and girls in Iraq. But this flattery is not good for the republic, and it’s not good for the troops.
The government of a free society hypocritically enslaved only one specific group in the populationyoung mento fight in a needless war in Vietnam, a backwater country that was not strategic to the United States. Instead of apologizing for their government’s kidnapping of youth for this dangerousand sometimes fatalservice, many segments of American society unjustly blamed these youthful victims for the war.
Out of guilt for this sorry episode in U.S. history, most Americans now go out of their way to praise the troops in Iraq, even if they are critical of the invasion or how the war is being conducted. But although many similarities exist between the Iraq and Vietnam wars, there is one critical difference. The draft was eliminated after the Vietnam War, and all of the troops fighting in Iraq are volunteers. The government thankfully no longer compels a narrow swath of society to fight and die in combat.
One of the main reasons that most of the American people have decided to passively oppose the Iraq war instead of joining active anti-war protests is that their children are no longer being involuntarily yanked from productive years of college and work onto the killing fields of war in a faraway land.
But shouldn’t Americans still be concerned about the death and dismemberment of young men who volunteered to “fight for all of us”? The answer is yes; all human life is precious. But the guilt of the rest of society for enjoying normal lives while young men and women bleed in Iraq should not stifle criticism of the military for its incompetent handling of the war or whitewash the choice that those enlistees made in the first place.
Any visit to the Pentagon between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of the Iraq Warand I made manywould at least partly explain why the U.S. military is losing another guerrilla war. The obvious ineptitude of the political appointees of the Bush administration, including the president, has obscured the bungling of the U.S. military in fighting the war. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army believed that it could have won the Vietnam War if the politicians hadn’t brought politics into it. And the solution to the problem of guerrilla war was that “we’re not going to fight these anymore.” A laudable goal to be sure, but the politicians didn’t cooperatethey have shown that they will involve the United States in guerrilla wars, which are inherently political.
After Vietnam, the Army went back to training for a large conventional war in Europe. Predictably, when the invasion of Iraq turned into a guerrilla war, the Army made the same mistakes it did in Vietnam. For example, it conducted “search and destroy” raids using excessive firepower, only to find that the local populace was in a hostile mood after their towns were destroyed and that the guerrillas had reinfiltrated after U.S. forces left the area. It should be shocking to Americans that even after the national trauma in Vietnam, their military bureaucracy wasn’t capable of institutional learning.
On an individual level, war critics must honestly acknowledge that the soldiers whose lives are at risk in Iraq made the choice to enlist in the military. It is true that many were convinced by military advertising that they were “serving their country.” In reality, they often serve their governmenta distinction that is very important. Since World War II, the U.S. military has been used less in its traditional role of defending the republic and its citizens against potential threats and more in the new role of policing the U.S. global empire. To police the realm, the U.S. military has been configured offensivelynot defensivelyto fight brushfire wars in far-flung nations. The Department of Defense should be renamed the “Department of Offense,” the “Department of Imperial Defense,” or at least the “Department for the Defense of Other Nations.” Many young men who enlist know deep down that the United States runs an assertive foreign policy overseas and are happy to participate in it.
Does that mean that we should not mourn their deaths and disfigurement in a pointless, counterproductive war? No. Young people are impressionable and can easily be convinced by patriotic images and rhetoric into risking their lives for goals that would make George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the nation’s founders cringe. They are also persuaded by the lucrative pay and benefits (compared to most civilians with the same education and job experience) that the military dishes out to its personnel.
Many Americans, however, mourn the lives of the 2,350 American volunteers who have died in Iraq, but worry little about the 25,000-100,000 Iraqis who didn’t volunteer to make the ultimate sacrifice in a U.S. invasion of their home soil. In fact, the U.S. government doesn’t even bother to keep track of how many Iraqis have died in the war.
More important, the nation’s founders realized that an excessive veneration of the military was not good for a republic. The American republic was supposed to be the antithesis of the militarized societies of 18th century Europe. The glorification of the militarized U.S. foreign policy of the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries would make the founding generation roll over in their graves.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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