I come from a family of veterans. My father and his two brothers served in the military during World War II. My mother’s brother fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese and was awarded the Bronze Star. Later, my eldest brother enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War, which my brother-in-law had fought in as a radio operator attached to the artillery. Their service helped to inspire my decision to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force.
Military service is honorable, not because of wars waged or lives taken, but because of its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And this should be the purpose of Veterans Day: to take note of our veterans and their service in upholding the ideals of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, a right to privacy, and most of all a government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to our oversight.
Yet since World War II America has fought wars without formal Congressional declarations. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, have lacked the wholehearted support of the American people. They were arguably unnecessary wars in the sense these countries and peoples posed no direct threat to America and our Constitution. Indeed, prosecuting these wars often posed more of a threat to that very Constitution.
Naturally, America associates veterans with wars and combat, and we say the dead made “the ultimate sacrifice,” which indeed they did. But for what purpose, and to what end? We owe it to veterans to ask these questions: for what purposes are we risking their lives, and to what end are these wars being waged? If we can’t answer these simple questions, in terms intimately associated with our Constitution and the true needs of national defense, we should end these wars immediately.
Unending wars are the worst enemy of freedom and liberty. This isn’t just my sentiment. As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” America once knew this; we were once a nation that was slow to anger and with little taste for large military establishments.
A few years ago, I stumbled across old sheet music in a bookstore. Catching my eye was the title of the song: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” respectfully dedicated to “Every Mother – Everywhere.” From 1915, this popular song captured American resistance to the calamitous “Great War” that we now call World War I. Anti-war sentiment was strong that year in America, and indeed Woodrow Wilson would be reelected president in 1916 in large part because he had kept Americans out of the war. The lyrics put it plainly: a mother who’d brought her son up “to be my pride and joy” didn’t want to see that same son having “to shoot some other mother’s darling boy.”
The contrast in these lyrics to recent U.S. military recruitment commercials couldn’t be starker. In a new Department of Defense advertising campaign, featuring the catchphrase “Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” mothers are shown incongruously in military settings asking their sons why they wanted to sign up. Weapons are featured prominently in these ads, but no combat. There’s much talk of teamwork and being part of something larger than yourself but no talk of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of these spots, the young men depicted have convinced their mothers that it’s desirable indeed to have your boy become a soldier.
Recruitment ads, of course, have never been at pains to show the true costs of war. When I was a teen, the Army’s motto was “Be all that you can be.” For the Navy, service was about “adventure.” For the Air Force, it was about “a great way of life.” These ads, by ignoring or eliding war’s costs, have contributed to America’s tighter embrace of war on the world stage and its severe impact, not only on our veterans but on our democracy. America’s strategy of “global reach, global power” has embroiled us in wars of choice that we increasingly choose not to end. Surely, it’s time to chart a more pacific path.
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. On this Veterans Day, let’s remind ourselves that veterans exist to defend our Constitution and our country, but that endless warfare, and intensifying militarism, are in fact among the most pressing dangers to our democracy.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.