By Jeff Klein
Veteran Day, the holiday we marked this week, was originally called “Armistice Day,” commemorating the end of the First World War on Nov. 11, 1918. The slaughter of 1914-1918 was then called “the war to end all wars” and when the US entered the conflict in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson justified it as “making the world safe for democracy.” In truth, it was neither.
Other wars followed throughout most of the 20th century, with the Second World War even more catastrophic than the first one. As for democracy, the US itself was far from a shining example in 1917.
Wilson assumed the presidency as an ardent racist who screened the pro-KKK film “Birth of a Nation” at the White House and introduced Jim Crow practices into Washington DC’s government. Women had not yet won the right to vote. African Americans were effectively barred from electoral participation in the post-Confederate South, and racial segregation and unequal citizenship were the rule in much of the nation.
A century later, American democracy is in many ways still an unfinished project.
Wilson proclaimed a major war aim as “national self-determination” for all peoples, even as most of the world was then ruled by the European colonial powers allied with the US. This didn’t change after the end of the war, when the colonies of the defeated powers were re-distributed to the victors rather than being granted independence.
The US itself was also a colonial power, with the Philippines and other possessions in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Wilson had no qualms about sending in the Marines to occupy nations in what was then regarded as the US “backyard” in Latin America.
Not a single American or European colony won its freedom following the First World War. Most of them only achieved independence decades later, often as the outcome of protracted and bloody liberation struggles.
Puerto Rico and other US-ruled territories still have no vote in presidential elections or representation in Congress.
Today, we need to learn the lesson that there is no such thing as a “good war.” Yes, there are occasions when a nation is compelled to defend itself against aggression or to oppose foreign rule, but these are exceptions. Even then, the cost of wars should be regarded as tragic necessity rather than a cause to celebrate. And, sadly, we should acknowledge that the nearly continuous US wars since 1945 mostly fail to meet even the test of self-defense.
From Korea to Vietnam and a host of smaller US military interventions around the world in the last 85 years, tens of thousands of US soldiers – and millions of innocent civilians – have lost their lives for dubious causes. That remains true today, with unjustified US and US-allied wars and occupations continuing endlessly in the Middle East.
The tragedy of death and destruction in war also comes with great financial costs. During the past 20 years, our country spent as much as $7 trillion on fruitless Middle East wars. Annually, we allocate over $1 trillion for “national defense,” which includes the maintenance of more than 800 foreign US military bases in every region of the globe. Just a fraction of this wasted money could be used to make our country more prosperous and more just.
Of course, on Nov. 11, we should mourn the fallen soldiers and honor the veterans who risked their lives in service to our country. But the best way to commemorate their sacrifice is a to refuse unnecessary wars and redirect much of our excessive military spending toward rebuilding a better United States and a better world.
Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and a member of Dorchester People for Peace.