Veterans Day: Let’s Remember How the U.S. Government Uses Enlisted Personnel

U.S. Air Force Honor Guard airmen and Marines stand at attention while at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Nov. 11, 2012. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Holzworth

Thursday, November 11, is Veterans Day, a holiday signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 to honor veterans of the U.S.A.’s wars. On such holidays, we are used to experiencing many patriotic speeches and displays, and lots of American flags waving.

But in the midst of all this, we should remember to question the assumptions that underlie the celebration of Veterans Day and other holidays like it, that portray U.S. wars as campaigns for freedom and democracy… because nothing could be further from the truth.

The U.S. military machine, by far the biggest and strongest in the world, is most commonly used to punish less powerful nations that dare to resist U.S. economic and political dominance, to protect U.S. access to natural resources or transportation routes, and to open markets for U.S. business interests. A clear statement of this came in 1935, when the highly decorated retired General Smedley Butler wrote the following description of his time as an officer in the U.S. Marines:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

This statement is as true of the recent U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan as it was of the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in 1898. Business interests drive American foreign policy.

And contrary to the rhetoric that the American military defends “freedom,” in a number of cases the U.S. military and C.I.A. have actually destroyed or undermined democracy, and propped up repressive dictators.

Also, many rank-and-file enlisted personnel in the U.S. military aren’t exactly volunteers. Many servicepeople are from working class families and join the military only because they don’t see better options for their life, or because they see it as a way to pay for future schooling, and they go in desperately hoping to never have to actually fight.

Many veterans are damaged by the violence of war, which causes them to do additional violence to themselves and others. Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or other places that U.S. troops have occupied, there have always been cases of torture, massacres, and violation of human rights. This does not mean that all U.S. soldiers are evil, or that they enter the military intending to conduct vicious acts. What it does mean is that violent life-or-death conflict leads inevitably to further violence and carnage. The recent U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, for instance, led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians killed in drone strikes, accidental shootings, and mass bombings by U.S. forces.

But there is also a history, notably during the Vietnam War, of huge numbers of soldiers openly protesting the war, resisting orders, and even killing their commanding officers. Thousands came home and joined the anti-war movement. Many, in other words, either never wanted to fight in the first place, or while fighting they began to deeply question the reasons for the conflict and the righteousness of their role in it.

Holidays like Veterans Day don’t do much for those they seem to honor. Today tens of thousands of American veterans are homeless or live their lives with prosthetic limbs; hundreds of thousands suffer long-term physical disabilities that need constant care for life. Millions live with rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression far higher than in the general population, leading to higher-than-average rates of suicide and domestic violence.

The reality is that the One Percent – the big capitalists – and their political minions use the patriotism and nationalism of holidays like Veterans Day to pull working class people into the meat grinder of war. Veterans Day isn’t really about honoring veterans. It’s about keeping many Americans convinced of the many myths that will lead us to go to war again and again. For working people and all victims of oppression in this society, our real enemy is the ruling class at home.