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Commentary

Memorial Day Should Make Us Rethink Platitudes about the U.S. Military



As the nation once again honors American war dead on Memorial Day, instead of spouting the usual nationalistic platitudes that U.S. soldiers fought to keep the country “safe and free,” perhaps we should analyze whether that is really true.

Since the 9/11 attacks, more than double the number of Americans killed in those terrorist attacks have been sent to their deaths in the war on terror (for example, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), not to mention the U.S. government’s killing of an order of magnitude more people in many Islamic countries using conventional military forces and drone attacks. Yet during this 15-year period, Americans have been in denial about why Islamist terrorists attack or threaten U.S. targets at home and overseas. U.S. politicians don’t want to discuss the unpleasant reality, because it might anger some voters and threaten their all-important chances for re-election. The American media—putting on what the public wants to see, hear, and read to get big advertising revenues—overhype coverage of Islamist groups like ISIS, because sensationalist coverage of diabolical villains doing heinous acts sells, but astutely bury the reasons these groups attack the United States.

American media coverage of Islamist terror groups has focused on their proliferation and their increasing savagery—for example, ISIS’s beheadings of hostages, its brutal methods of rule, and its barbarous destruction of archeological treasures—but never examines the question of how much of a threat many of these groups pose to U.S. targets at home and abroad and why these groups would want to attack a country so far away.

In fact, fundamentalist Islam has been around for centuries, just as radical branches of other religions have been, and most radical Islamist groups have local or regional grievances—for example, ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya; Boko Haram in Nigeria and surrounding countries; Al Shabab in Somalia; and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the region of West Africa. Jenifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies was recently quoted in a New York Times article about the U.S. military giving assistance to various governments across Africa to fight such groups.

She made a very telling, if understated comment, “Some of the threats, whether it’s Al Shabab, ISIL[ISIS], Boko Haram, or AQIM, pose a more direct and sophisticated threat to African states, to European allies, and potentially to the United States.”

The last phrase is used as a euphemism by experts on terrorism to acknowledge that the United States is harder (but not impossible) for such groups to attack, because it is more distant across oceans and it doesn’t have as many radicalized sympathizers to shelter prospective “evildoers.”

The fact is that most of these groups would have no reason to attack the United States if it didn’t assist local governments in attacking them or attack them directly. For example, even ISIS didn’t start beheading Western journalists and trying to attack European targets until a U.S.-led coalition, which included European countries, started bombing ISIS in the Middle East.

The U.S. government has used the “Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 led to a snowballing threat” rationale as the excuse for excessive U.S. military action during and after the Cold War to address any threat, no matter how remote, so that it didn’t multiply into something worse. This simplistic Munich analogy led to many needless overseas overt and covert interventions; to quagmires, such as the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and is now leading to blowback terrorism.

In recent CNN program, “Why Do They Hate Us,” Fareed Zakaria does mention U.S. foreign policy, but then quickly skips on to the question of whether Islam is an inherently violent religion and asks why the Vietnamese (Buddhists) didn’t use terrorism against the United States. One reason might be that they were not as weak as the Muslims are against U.S. power—terrorism is used by the weak against the strong when no other means are available—and the second might be that the U.S. government has focused most of its post-World War II military interventions on the Middle East rather than Southeast Asia, including attacking or invading at least seven Muslim countries since 9/11.

Most Americans do not focus on the fact that their country has statistically been the most aggressive country in the world after World War II and that some people don’t like the U.S. government meddling in their affairs using armed force. This rage does not excuse heinous behavior or attacking civilians, as al Qaeda, ISIS and other groups have done, but it does at least explain their behavior.

Since World War II, the U.S. military has been used for imperial policing, not defending the country as the Constitution stipulates. Unfortunately, many of the recent military deaths that we are mourning have been unnecessary and even counterproductive—as new more radical groups are spawned from the ones U.S. intervention helped create in the first place—al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq.

Some would say that not running an activist foreign policy is naïve and dangerous. What is naïve is that many Americans seem to think that the 9/11 and other terror attacks just arise out of thin air, with no cause except perhaps pure evil in the perpetrators’ hearts. Terrorists are evil, but the ones that threaten the United States (and the many that don’t should be left alone) are doing so for reasons that the American people and their politicians and media don’t care to examine—at their own peril.


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 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.


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