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American Pie: The Coming Home

"...the US government continues to foist phony wars on the population, supported by lies and obfuscation. Even more surprising is the population’s willingness to be bamboozled. Panama, Barbados, Somalia, Bosnia, the Gulf War and now Afghanistan and Iraq. When will it end? When will we look at the death, destruction and misery of the last 100 years and conclude that there has to be another way?''

At that time of year when the United States commemorates the fallen pf past wars John Merchant considers the justification, or lack of it, for past and present conflicts.

John concludes "If we’re willing to spend billions on a war, shouldn’t we be prepared to spend as much or more on preventing one? A naïve idea? No more naïve than thinking that warfare solves problems.''

This last weekend in May was marked as usual in the USA by memorial ceremonies to commemorate the fallen of past wars, and to show support for the troops who are still engaged in conflict. For the families and individuals who have lost loved ones or who are dealing with the broken bodies and minds of some of the survivors, it’s an emotional time. Those of us who are more fortunate, share their emotion and feel their pain.

While watching a commemorative concert in Washington, D.C. on television, I found myself thinking about past wars, contrasting the circumstances under which each of them was fought, and the way the returning troops were received back into their communities. It would seem that the public’s acceptance of war, and its consequences in terms of human sacrifice, has much to do with what is perceived as the justness of the cause.

When I was five years old, World War I, the “war to end all wars,” had been over for twenty years, but it was still very present in daily life. It seemed that every family had either lost at least one member, or was dealing with terrible injuries or the after effects of being gassed. This is not surprising when one considers that Great Britain alone sustained 703,000 killed and over a million and a half wounded. The number of casualties, and the abuse of the soldiers by their officers and generals was a dark passage in Britain’s history. Yet there was a surprising absence of acrimony after it was over. Monuments were erected in every town and village square, and the country went soberly about its business.

World War II probably was the last war that could be upheld as a just cause. The Third Reich and its allies clearly needed to be opposed, and ultimately there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it would take a war to do it, despite early hopes that diplomacy would win the day. In some ways, the reparations and sanctions imposed on Germany after WWI created a fertile ground for the next conflict, and there is little doubt that the Germans felt justified in their aggression.

Once more, the number of deaths was nightmarish. A total of 62,178,900 people died, including those whose lives were extinguished in the death camps. Out of that total, some 25,203,500 military deaths were recorded among all combatants. Once again, there was no obvious acrimony in Great Britain or in the USA, both of which countries shared heavily in the losses.

The returning troops rightfully were treated as heroes, and in the USA at least, policies were put in place to ensure the post war health care of veterans through the Veteran’s Administration, and to provide for their education through the GI Bill of rights. The veterans slipped quietly back into their civilian lives, most of them dealing uncomplainingly with their mental and physical disablement.

WWII was the first “media war,” where the folks back home were kept abreast of events as they happened. What few civilians realized at the time was the degree to which they were being manipulated by the government-controlled media. Since there was no TV, most of the reporting was verbal, and the only graphic images were the cinema newsreels and still pictures in magazines and newspapers. The film footage was carefully edited, and the still pictures vigilantly selected to portray the war in the most positive light. The radio commentaries were couched in suitably heroic terms.

By the time the Korean War began, media coverage had become more sophisticated and comprehensive, though not less controlled by the allied governments. The war was justified by the perceived need to stem the tide of advancing communism, though this was more the rationale of the USA than the other allies. The USA has always been paranoid about communism, to the puzzlement of countries like Britain, France and Italy, who tolerated a communist party within their borders, and did not consider it a threat to their democracy.

Despite its small scale, compared to WWII, the Korean conflict was also responsible for an enormous number of fatalities. A total of two and a half million combatants and non-combatants died in the three years the war lasted, and the country is still divided. In some ways, despite the media coverage, the war was subliminal to people not directly involved. I was serving my two years compulsory service in the army at the time, and fortunately was spared being posted to Korea, but the war was hardly even a topic of conversation in my group.

Since Korea, there has been a succession of wars and conflicts that defy justification, mostly brought about by the USA’s belief that it is saving a people from oppression and defending democracy, or protecting its oil supplies. In hindsight, none of these wars should have been fought, and the outcomes, had the wars not been fought, would likely not have been as dire as was predicted. The prime example is of course Vietnam.

The Vietnam War represents a pinnacle for many of war’s horrors, and was the first to be reported by an unfettered media. It was the first war to use Napalm fire bombs extensively, and the first to use the Agent Orange defoliant that sickened people on both sides. Millions of tons of high explosive bombs were dropped on sparsely populated areas, and people are still being maimed and killed by unexploded munitions. A total of over seven million people died in North and South Vietnam and in Cambodia, and that’s reportedly a low estimate.

For several years it was a war that was not a war. The Americans were there “simply to advise.” But in 1965, US forces went off to fight in Vietnam, accompanied by the cheers and support of their countrymen. Then as the conflict dragged on, and the death toll grew without any sign of strategic progress, popular support began to fade. More than that, massive demonstrations in the USA against the war began to gather momentum. For the first time in recent history there were large scale defections of young men eligible to be drafted into the military.

By the time the USA forces withdrew in 1975, popular support was long gone. There was no flag waving, no ticker tape parades, and no glory in their return home. The general feeling was that it was a shameful war, and that the US public had been bamboozled into lending it their support. The troops who had served there were understandably dismayed at their less than heroic homecoming, adding to the psychological burden of being defeated. Since the war ended, there have been some 50,000 suicides amongst US Vietnam veterans. By any standards it was a debacle.

All the more surprising then that the US government continues to foist phony wars on the population, supported by lies and obfuscation. Even more surprising is the population’s willingness to be bamboozled. Panama, Barbados, Somalia, Bosnia, the Gulf War and now Afghanistan and Iraq. When will it end? When will we look at the death, destruction and misery of the last 100 years and conclude that there has to be another way? When will we do a better job of analyzing the justification?

If we’re willing to spend billions on a war, shouldn’t we be prepared to spend as much or more on preventing one? A naïve idea? No more naïve than thinking that warfare solves problems.

As I watched the faces of the audience at the commemoration, I had to wonder whether their tears and emotions wouldn’t have been more effectively expressed before rather than after their country headed into another conflict. The military are committed to fighting, and the politicians to their agenda, however misbegotten. Only the people can prevent a repeat of the past. Then no one will have to face the leaving, or the coming home.

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