Huffpost WorldPost
Steve Heilig Headshot

War -- What Is It Good For? Some Memorial Day Reflections

Posted: Updated:

Memorial Day, like Veteran's Day, always brings conflicted thoughts and emotions. Here are some of them, spurred by some recent books and other reports. Americans have a longtime romance with war movies, books and stories, but these are a little different.

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

- President/General Dwight D. Eisenhower

My father worked the "industrial" side of what Eisenhower famously called the military-industrial complex. He ran a division of a major automobile corporation that made weaponry, or parts thereof, for the military. After he died, we found a letter addressed to him from a senior general he worked with. The letter said (paraphrasing; I've misplaced it): "It has come to our attention that you have brought in a major project under budget and before deadline. Please don't ever do that again, as it makes us all look bad." The letter was a joke among old pals, but belied a major problem -- these old military cronies (my father was a Navy man, and stayed involved the rest of his life) were used to going way over budget in their use of tax dollars to fund "defense" or, in the case of Vietnam at the time, offense. It was an offhand insiders' joke among good old Cold Warriors -- who didn't seem to worry that their practices came at the expense of taxpayers' funds and probably human lives.

This old letter came to mind as I read of the current national budgetary debates, much of which has focused on the military. I'm no expert in this realm, but have found some recent books to be illuminating about our nation's military history, and how it has shaped and warped our economy and policy. Start with this fact: The U.S. spends more on "defense" than all other nations combined, but still we have lost and/or blundered most every war we've entered in the past half century. Now read on....

The first book is National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism by Melvin A. Goodman. Goodman, who spent 24 years with the CIA, provides an incisive insider's examination of what he calls our "military economy," and how outsized "defense" spending and profiteering results in much more "offense" than might otherwise be conducted or justified. The result is untold suffering and, in some cases, belated apologies. With a focus on the most recent such "adventures" in Iraq and Afghanistan, Goodman summarizes much of what any impartial informed view of these wars, especially the Iraq disaster, must conclude -- they have been a "monumental blunder," as former New York Times editor Bill Keller, a former supporter, had to conclude from the evidence a decade into the war.

Beyond the economic near-disaster brought to our own country, our national reputation was stained by our use of torture, which has again been confirmed by a recent bipartisan task force that concluded that such practices "had "no justification" and "damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive."

Further, we have provided oft-shameful care of veterans, and are now seeing a shameful scandal unfold regarding sexual abuse among our own soldiers.

It thus should not be so surprising to read of the tragic frequency of suicides among those we send to war (on this latter tragic point, a recent letter in the New York Times by Sandy Savett offered this terse prescription: "A good way to cut down on suicides in the military is to stop sending young people to war").

The second book is Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The Vietnam War has been examined enough, with enough apology even by those who conducted it -- see Robert McNamara's belated mea culpa -- that one might think there was nothing left to tell or lament. But Turse provides a catalog of atrocities so pervasive and inexcusable that this reader will never be able to feel unreservedly proud of our nation again, and never feel wholly justified in criticizing another. Our military in this war was as bad as any in history. America committed genocide there -- and not for the first time.

The third book, also centered on the Vietnam War, is Napalm: An American Biography by Robert Neer. This one reads like a case study of arms development, with the product being deployed without discretion or mercy, in the name of victory but also profit. Countless humans -- and, I can't help but add, other creatures -- suffered and died horribly from napalm's use. True to form and too late for them, the United Nations called the use of napalm against civilians a war crime in 1980. Also true to form, our own nation admitted to that global consensus just a few years ago.

Napalm's most visible and infamous victim was Kim Phuc, a nine-year-old girl photgraphed running down a road in agony. In Neer's book, she now relates that she has been in physical pain ever since, but that for decades the psychic pain was even worse. She lived in anger and hatred of Americans, and "I had cursed them to death." But after finding foregiveness, "I feel there are no more scars on my heart." It's a beautiful redemption; but her struggle did not have to happen in the first place.

The final book is What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts. World War II was the one "good war," supposedly, where "the greatest generation" were unequivocal heroes. Well, read this book and learn how many of our soldiers acted simiarly to the hated Japanese and Germans, raping and abusing the very people they had just "liberated" -- with the acquiescence and even encouragement of their leaders. As the title says, maybe that's just what soldiers do -- history would seem to tell us so.

Currently there are budgetary debates about how much we might be able to cut "defense" spending. The argument becomes partisan, with "conservatives" arguing that this is the one area where we need to spend as much as we currently do -- or more. Somehow, as even a Republican politician has lamented, "Conservatism came to mean 'I deserve to drive my SUV as much as I want and will send other people's kids to fight for that right.'" But increasingly, even self-identified conservatives are joining Eisenhower in seeing the folly of our being "seduced by war" -- and that "support our troops" is an empty slogan when that just means a bumper sticker. How about cutting expenses on unneeded weaponry and bases, and spending that on better services for veterans -- and others? There are many opportunity costs to us being the biggest military power of all time. Even a relatively small percentage cut in military spending could fund so much in terms of human services, and many experts feel it could be done with no loss in terms of our national security. Goodman, in his book, offers expert advice on how this might be attained.

Now, I'm very aware of George Orwell's famed statement that "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." The majority of soldiers likely go to war, at least at first, due to loyalty and even idealism (although it must also be noted that enlistment in a no-draft military is often, even mostly, driven by economic need). I've no illusions that the world can be dangerous and I'm glad I live in a relatively safe, and even relatively dominant, nation. I even admit to "interventionist" urges when I read of, say, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad using language from his medical background to justify his regime's slaughter ("When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood?"). That makes me wish we could somehow remove him from power, and save lives at a minimum.

But there is such a thing as overkill -- literally. It's said that everything looks like a nail if you're holding a hammer; the United States has long had many more "hammers" than it needs. We need to scale it back, and maybe these books and other viewpoints, even though they might not be entirely new, indicate a growing awareness of that. I consider myself a patriot, but blind patriotism is really meaningless; "my country, right or wrong" is the slogan of the blind. We can both honor those who have sacrificed and do much better. Even my hawkish and lifelong Republican father, as he was a highly-educated man, came to see Iraq as a mistake. And when the historical evidence is reviewed, it seems that the old 1969 Temptations/Edwin Starr Motown hit -- later revived by Bruce Springsteen -- had it right:

"War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!"

Say it again.