They Died For Their Country

Thoughts on the wars we fight, and those who die in them

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Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

“In this time of testing, our troops can know: The American people are behind you. Next week, our nation has an opportunity to make sure that support is felt by every soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guardsman, and Marine at every outpost across the world. This Fourth of July, I ask you to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom — by flying the flag, sending a letter to our troops in the field, or helping the military family down the street. The Department of Defense has set up a website — You can go there to learn about private efforts in your own community. At this time when we celebrate our freedom, let us stand with the men and women who defend us all.” (George Bush in his TV address to the nation on Iraq at Fort Bragg, June 28, 2005.)

The President’s speech Tuesday had the ring of familiarity to it — utterly flat, remarkably stale familiarity. Sooner or later, when words ring so familiarly and are, at the same time, so discordant in relation to reality, even a President’s supporters begin to worry. If anything in the President’s speech was new, it was only to the degree that reality had somehow infiltrated his world, despite the best efforts of his handlers. For instance, in the relatively brief speech, clearly meant to be upbeat despite bad times in Iraq, “loss” and “lose” were used 7 times; “prevail” twice; “win”, “won,” “victory,” “triumph” not at all. Iraq was mentioned 91 times and Afghanistan only twice (even as news about a Taliban-downed Chinook helicopter carrying 16 Americans was being played down at the Pentagon so that it would not share headlines with the President’s message).

George Bush’s handlers can read the polls and about the only number favoring the President these days is the 52% of Americans who still think he’s handling the “war on terror” well. Not surprisingly then, the speech managed to meld the 9/11 attacks, the war on terror, and the war in Iraq in a major way. It was a case of history-by-association. In a speech supposedly focused on Iraq, the date September 11, 2001 was mentioned 5 times; “terror,” “terrorism,” “anti-terrorism,” and “terrorist” were used 35 times (or approximately once for every 100 words). And yet this too had a tired ring to it. Perhaps the only new note in a well-worn speech was the repositioning of our President as recruiter-in-chief for our overstretched military. (“I thank those of you who have re-enlisted in an hour when your country needs you. And to those watching tonight who are considering a military career, there is no higher calling than service in our Armed Forces.”) That was another bow to unpleasant reality and, I suppose, one way of supporting the troops as well. Make more of them.

The President’s “clear path forward” — when opinion polls sink, you go on television and address the nation, resolutely reiterating your previous policy in order to get a quick bump in the polls, and you do so in front of a military audience — was familiar in another way (for those of us old enough to remember). Lyndon Johnson, a president who swore often to “stay the course,” once strode exactly this path. Some of his Vietnam statements would sound eerily up-to-date at the moment — and his speeches too grew uncomfortably familiar, even to his increasingly anxious supporters, as he headed via Credibility Gap directly into Credibility Gulch.

Q. Mr. President, you have never talked about a timetable in connection with Viet-Nam. You have said, and you repeated today, that the United States will not be defeated, will not grow tired. Donald Johnson, National Commander of the American Legion, went over to Viet-Nam in the spring and later called on you. He told White House reporters that he could imagine the war over there going on for 5, 6, or 7 years. Have you thought of that possibility, sir? And do you think the American people ought to think of that possibility?

“LBJ: Yes, I think the American people ought to understand that there is no quick solution to the problem that we face there. I would not want to prophesy or predict whether it would be a matter of months or years or decades. I do not know that we had any accurate timetable on how long it would take to bring victory in World War I. I don’t think anyone really knew whether it would be 2 years or 4 years or 6 years, to meet with success in World War II. I do think our cause is just. I do think our purpose and objectives are beyond any question.”

Speaking this week at Fort Bragg, the President was, as many have noted, greeted by the troops with a “stony, untelegenic silence,” except once when a presidential staffer evidently prompted them to give him an ovation. Like Johnson, Bush — now facing the first calls for “timetables” and “withdrawal schedules,” for goals, definitions of success or victory, or time limits of any sort — swore he would do none of the above, that he would set no “artificial timetable.” His was a classic Vietnam-era stay-the-course speech. (Recently, Lt. Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, commented: “When the president says he is staying the course it reminds me of the man who has just jumped from the Empire State Building. Half-way down he says, ?I am still on course.’ Well, I would not want to be on course with a man who will lie splattered in the street. I would like to be someone who could change the course.”)

Among the many mantras repeated by the President, none perhaps was more familiar than the need for Americans to “support our troops.” This has been a line pushed hard not just by this administration but by the right more generally ever since the 1980s and has become something of a patriotic serum, meant to innoculate all who use it against close examination of the policies that those troops are sent to carry out. It’s a strange formula when you think about it — to urge people to support the troops, not the policies — but it’s the essence of our present political world. The truth is that the troops — our young men and women — whom George Bush sent off so rashly into the world to fight and die are doing so, even if in the name of “freedom,” for practices that are anything but free and generally strikingly un-American. Take just two of them mentioned in the last few days:

In Arrested Development, an op-ed in the New York Times, Arlie Hochschild laid out some of the numbers on children that the President’s war on terror has put in all too adult jails under all-too-adult conditions of mistreatment beyond the reach of parents or lawyers. Hundreds and hundreds of children ? and those are only the ones we know about. At the same time, information long circulating that Americans were holding war-on-terror prisoners on prison ships (or possibly just U.S. Navy ships) floating off the coast of justice have begun to surface more insistantly. (The last time I heard about prison ships of this sort, the British were holding our revolutionary war soldiers in them in New York harbor.) These are just two minor aspects of George Bush’s ever-expanding global Bermuda Triangle of Injustice, something I’ve been calling a “mini-gulag” since long before the Abu Ghraib story broke. Americans simply should not be supporting such practices, which can only lead into quagmires galore and to presidential speeches like the one Tuesday.

For me, “supporting our troops” has a very particular meaning. It had the same meaning in the Vietnam era (which is why, to this day, visiting the Vietnam Wall leaves me filled with sadness and with anger because we were unable to bring our boys home before all those names mounted up). If you support the policies of an administration, then you naturally support the mission of our troops and so whatever they are doing. If not, then you don’t want another unneeded death to occur and the only way to truly support our troops is to work hard — in the case of Iraq with growing numbers of angry military people and military family members — to bring them home.

Paul Rogat Loeb, a man generally of a sunny nature who has put together a splendid, hopeful book about how to be hopeful under the worst of conditions (The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear) turns to sacrifice, the protection of freedom, and support for the troops and considers them in his own original way for this sad July 4th.

They Died for Their Country

By Paul Rogat Loeb

“They died for their country,” read the white granite memorial in the Concord, Massachusetts town square, honoring local men who died in the Civil War. Newer headstones mourned Concord men who gave their lives in other wars — practically every war America has fought — belying the recent baiting of quintessentially blue-state Massachusetts as a place whose citizens lack patriotism. I was in town, on the first anniversary of Sept 11, speaking at a local church that had lost one of its most active members on a hijacked plane, a man named Al Filipov. It was clear then — and clearer now — that these honored dead would not be our nation’s last.

I thought of Concord when George Bush urged us, this past Memorial Day, to redeem the sacrifices of our soldiers in Iraq by “completing the mission for which they gave their lives.” But what if this mission (which will, of course, claim more lives) itself is questionable, and founded on a basis of lies?

Forty-eight Concord men died in the Civil War, which the memorial called “the War of the Rebellion.” They indeed died for their country, turning the tide at battles like Gettysburg and helping end the brutal oppression of slavery. The World War II vets, listed on a nearby plaque, helped preserve the freedom of America — and the world. We owe a profound debt to the farmers and artisans who won our freedom in America’s Revolution, and whose sacrifices were marked, a few miles away, with an exhibit on the battles of Lexington and Concord. It’s easy for those who have lived through too many dubious wars to forget the power of their sacrifices.

But not all the Concord deaths served such lofty purposes. Three Concord men died “in the service of their country” during the Spanish-American war. This war of empire took 600,000 lives alone in our subsequent occupation of the Philippines and our suppression of the first Asian republic, prompting Mark Twain to suggest that the Filipinos adopt a modified version of our flag “with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” Five Concord men died in Vietnam joining 58,000 other Americans, one to two million Vietnamese, and four million who died after we overthrew a long-neutral Cambodian government and paved the way for Pol Pot.. One died in our 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, which helped prevent the return of a democratically elected president and installed a corrupt oligarch who would rule for nearly three decades.

The American soldiers who died in these wars were as brave as their compatriots in the Civil War or World War II. They undoubtedly had as much integrity in their personal lives. But their courage and sacrifice made the world neither safer nor freer. Since my visit to Concord, the memorial has added another name, a 25-year-old first lieutenant, killed a month after our forces rolled into Iraq in March of 2003, around the time that Bush spoke under that “mission accomplished” banner on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

It’s tempting to assume that all the sacrifices of our soldiers are worthwhile. But mere courage guarantees no inherent moral rightness: German and Japanese soldiers fought bravely in World War II. The September 11 hijackers were willing to surrender their lives to murder 3,000 innocent people, including Al Filipov, whose widow would initiate the peace and justice lecture series where I spoke. Even when we’re told our soldiers are fighting for freedom, we have to look at the broadest consequences of their actions. For instance, an international Pew Center survey right after our Iraqi invasion found that we’d so embittered the Islamic world that majorities to near-majorities in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt now said they trusted Osama bin Laden “to do the right thing in world affairs.” They now viewed him as a hero, not a murderer.

Unfortunately, those who initiated the Iraq war now use each additional American death to justify the need to stay. If we challenge this war, we’re told we’re being disloyal to the troops, undermining their resolve and disdaining their sacrifices. We heard this as well during Vietnam, after which the media rewrote the history of the antiwar movement to imply, through images like protestors spitting on soldiers, that those working to bring the troops home were their enemies.

By time the first Gulf War began, these images were omnipresent. Even young anti-war activists told me, “We won’t spit on the soldiers this time.” Yet when sociologists Jerry Starr and Richard Flacks, who worked extensively with Vietnam vets, tried to track down the story, they couldn’t find a single incident of a vet who said he was actually spat upon. And when syndicated columnist Bob Greene invited responses on the subject in a column that reached 200 papers, he found only a handful.

The power of such useful myths for those who send our sons and daughters to war may erode as military families and veterans play an increasingly visible role in the current antiwar movement, though veterans and families played a key part in the Vietnam-era peace movement as well. Every time I’ve marched against this war, I’ve ended up next to someone carrying a picture of a relative in uniform, a son or brother, husband, nephew, or niece, often someone facing the involuntary servitude of being unable to leave the military long after his or her original service term had expired. But unless we can convince our fellow citizens to separate the lives of the soldiers from the policies that place them in harm’s way, they’ll continue to be held hostage to the choices of leaders who are insulated from the human costs.

So let’s remember the debt we owe to those who have died for freedom as well as those who risk and sacrifice in the name of protecting us all. But not all wartime deaths advance human dignity, and not all sacrifices are worthwhile. If those who die for a worthy cause are indeed heroes to be honored, those who send our brave young men and women to die in wars of empire and dominion squander their courage, their trust, and ultimately their lives. To use their losses to justify further needless deaths is to betray the best of what the soldiers enlist to protect. For not all of America’s wars have been worth dying in, nor are those we now fight.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, winner of the Nautilus Award for best social change book of last year. He’s also the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time and three other books.

Copyright 2005 Paul Rogat Loeb

This piece first appeared at


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