Stories We Tell Ourselves
“Who’s dying for your freedom in this land,
Who pays for the cost for the liberties you demand
Is it for freedom, or our comfort and convenience,
Who pays the cost for the convenience we demand”
Excerpts from the song “Is it for Freedom?” by Sara Thomsen
On Memorial Day we eulogize the military service members who were sacrificed by our many wars. We tell ourselves these brave Americans died to “defend freedom” and protect our way of life. Implied in these stories is that our many wars were necessary and justified. But too often these stories glorify war and give legitimacy to violence and militarism. They make the next war possible.
Too often we fail to consider all the costs of our many wars and military actions. We don’t think about all the victims and the people we callously refer to as “collateral damage.” War kills and maims more civilians than soldiers. And we fail to consider how our actions promote war and conflict around the world.
The stories we tell ourselves — our national myths — shape our beliefs and our actions. We have many popular misconceptions about veterans, the military, and our history that are harmful. We tell ourselves that we are the “good guys” whose motives are been pure and selfless. We believe we fight wars to achieve peace, promote democracy, and “save” others from dictators. But the history of our militarized foreign policy tells a different story.
Some Internet sources claim the U.S. has been at peace only 21 years since 1776. This analysis includes not only major wars but military actions like the battles with Native Americans, interventions in Latin America, the Cold War and its various proxy wars. We have also supported, funded, and sold arms to many other conflicts. However you interpret the history, there is no denying that we have been engaged in many wars and military actions.
We have interfered in the internal affairs of other countries numerous times. According to David Swanson, of World Beyond War, the United States military has killed (or helped kill) an estimated 20 million people since World War II. We have overthrown 36 governments, interfered with 84 foreign elections, attempted to assassinate 50 foreign leaders, and dropped bombs on 30 countries. Over the last 17 years, the United States has bombed Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria. The U.S. government as of 2017 provided military aid to 73% of the world’s dictatorships. For details of these statements see “Let’s Try Democracy,” War List, http://davidswanson.org/warlist. Even if you think our motives were pure, it is difficult to justify or be proud of this history.
We cannot deny that too frequently we are part of the problem rather than the solution to conflicts between nations. Too often our “diplomacy” consists of making threats and demands. There are no negotiations, no compromises, no finding of common ground. Our definition of diplomacy is to do what we want or get bombed. Recent events show this is the approach of the current administration.
Twice the current administration has bombed Syria allegedly to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons. This was to “send messages” that the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable and to deter their future use. Nothing was actually accomplished. But it shows our preference for military action over other possible conflict resolution actions.
In North Korea, the Trump administration has been threatening military strikes including use of nuclear weapons. Prior administrations talked about “all options being on the table.” But this administration escalated the rhetoric to “fire and fury…the likes of which this world has never seen before.” This was clearly a reference to using nuclear weapons. Tensions have been reduced through the leadership of South Korea. North and South Koreans have met and unilaterally made progress towards better relations. A meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is supposed to happen but appears to be dead because we refuse to cancel provocative, unnecessary military war games in South Korea.
Pulling out of the international agreement to control Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is another example. There is no evidence that the Iranians had violated the treaty. None of the other countries involved support this move. This action will accomplish nothing positive but will increase nuclear tensions in the region. It may lead to military confrontations between Israel and Iran. Iran will probably resume seeking to build nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia may try join the nuclear arms race in reaction to the Iranian actions.
Endless war does not make us safer, more secure, or more free. In fact each new war strengthens our culture of violence, weakens civil liberties, promotes militarization of our police, and increases the power of the executive branch. Many observers think this is moving us toward authoritarianism and the decline of democracy.
Our standing in the world and our diplomatic influence is declining. We have lost respect around the world. Polls say many people in other countries consider the United States to be the biggest threat to world peace. In the future we may become the pariah nation being boycotted and sanctioned.
In the past we have cooperated with other nations to do good things. Our history has not been all bad. We can lead in fostering cooperation, diplomacy, and building a more peaceful world. Changing how we think and the stories we tell ourselves will make this possible. The best way to honor the sacrifice of our troops is to work for peace.