And, of course, journalists and politicians have slathered nothing
but praise on American boys and girls in Iraq. But this flattery is not
good for the Republic, and it’s not good for the troops.
The government of a free society hypocritically enslaved only one
specific group in the population—young men—to fight in a needless war in
Vietnam, a backwater country that was not strategic to the United
States. Instead of apologizing for their government’s kidnapping of
youth for this dangerous—and sometimes fatal—service, many segments of
American society unjustly blamed these youthful victims for the war.
Out of guilt for this sorry episode in U.S. history, most Americans
now go out of their way to praise the troops in Iraq, even if they are
critical of the invasion or how the war is being conducted.
But although many similarities exist between the Iraq and Vietnam
wars, there is one critical difference. The draft was eliminated after
the Vietnam War, and all of the troops fighting in Iraq are volunteers.
The government thankfully no longer compels a narrow swath of society to
fight and die in combat.
One of the main reasons that most of the American people have decided
to passively oppose the Iraq war instead of joining active anti-war
protests is that their children are no longer being involuntarily yanked
from productive years of college and work onto the killing fields of war
in a faraway land.
But shouldn’t Americans still be concerned about the death and
dismemberment of young men who volunteered to “fight for all of us”?
The answer is yes; all human life is precious. But the guilt of the
rest of society for enjoying normal lives while young men and women
bleed in Iraq should not stifle criticism of the military for its
incompetent handling of the war.
Any visit to the Pentagon between the end of the Vietnam War and the
start of the Iraq War—and I made many—would at least partly explain why
the U.S. military is losing another guerrilla war. The obvious
ineptitude of the political appointees of the Bush administration,
including the President, has obscured the bungling of the U.S. military
in fighting the war.
After the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army believed that it could have won
the Vietnam War if the politicians hadn’t brought politics into it. And
the solution to the problem of guerrilla war was that “we’re not going
to fight these anymore.” A laudable goal to be sure, but the politicians
didn’t cooperate—they have shown that they will involve the United
States in guerrilla wars, which are inherently political.
After Vietnam, the Army went back to training for a large
conventional war in Europe. Predictably, when the invasion of Iraq
turned into a guerrilla war, the Army made the same mistakes it did in
For example, it conducted “search and destroy” raids using excessive
firepower, only to find that the local populace was in a hostile mood
after their towns were destroyed and that the guerrillas had
reinfiltrated after U.S. forces left the area. It should be shocking to
Americans that even after the national trauma in Vietnam, their military
bureaucracy wasn’t capable of institutional learning.
On an individual level, war critics must honestly acknowledge that
the soldiers whose lives are at risk in Iraq made the choice to enlist
in the military. It is true that many were convinced by military
advertising that they were “serving their country.” In reality, they
often serve their government—a distinction that is very important.
Since World War II, the U.S. military has been used less in its
traditional role of defending the Republic and its citizens against
potential threats and more in the new role of policing the U.S. global
empire. To police the realm, the U.S. military has been configured
offensively—not defensively—to fight brushfire wars in far-flung
The Department of Defense should be renamed the “Department of
Offense,” the “Department of Imperial Defense,” or at least the
“Department for the Defense of Other Nations.” Many young men who enlist
know deep down that the United States runs an assertive foreign policy
overseas and are happy to participate in it.
Does that mean that we should not mourn their deaths and
disfigurement in a pointless, counterproductive war?
No. Young people are impressionable and can easily be convinced by
patriotic images and rhetoric into risking their lives for goals that
would make George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the
nation’s Founders cringe. They are also persuaded by the pay and
benefits that the military dishes out to its personnel.
Many Americans, however, mourn the lives of the 2,350 American
volunteers who have died in Iraq, but worry little about the
25,000-100,000 Iraqis who didn’t volunteer to make the ultimate
sacrifice in a U.S. invasion of their home soil. In fact, the U.S.
government doesn’t even bother to keep track of how many Iraqis have
died in the war.
More important, the nation’s Founders realized that an excessive
veneration of the military was not good for a republic. The American
Republic was supposed to be the antithesis of the militarized societies
of 18th century Europe. The glorification of the militarized U.S.
foreign policy of the latter half of the 20th and early 21st
centuries would make the founding generation roll over in their graves.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.