One persistent claim in U.S. society is that, “The troops fought/fight for our freedom!” and that we “fight for freedom” in our various wars. In my experience, this idea is brought up to try and silence criticism of the United States and/or to generally encourage nationalism. The implied accusation is that by criticizing the United States, or failing to sufficiently support our country, we are disrespecting our service members who sacrificed so that we could have our freedom.
But is this claim true?
Everyone in the U.S. should question if this true because we should be interested in the truth. We should also recognize our foreign policy actions impact the world, take a lot of lives and cost a lot of money. People who support the troops, serve in the military, or have loved ones and friends who serve in the military should be especially interested in questioning this claim. After all, if the troops are sent to fight for something other than freedom or an equally noble goal, then what is the real reason we are asking the troops to take incredible risks for, and are those reasons worth it?
A clear way to find an answer.
I would argue the most direct way to assess this question is to look at the times our troops have actually fought in wars, and see if it was against an enemy that was a reasonable threat to our national sovereignty. I say this for two main reasons. First, examining when the U.S. has deemed it worthy to send our troops into harms way sets aside a lot of politics and propaganda that cloud this issue. Second, to claim that our wars are to secure our freedom is to suggest that we are fighting a threat to our actual national sovereignty. In other words, one is claiming that without the U.S. troops fighting on our behalf in those wars, external forces would invade the U.S., overthrow our government, and set up a more repressive society with less freedom. If our wars are not against such an actual threat, then how could this claim be true; how could we be fighting for freedom if our freedoms were never endangered?
And a relatively clear answer.
If one explores our litany wars, invasions, and battles the U.S. military has fought in, (and I encourage all of you to do this yourselves) many of our wars can be grouped according to their underlying rationale.
- The largest group of wars (51/107 by my count) have been wars fought against Native American tribes as the U.S. government sought to expand its territory.
- A small group of wars, such as the Barbary Pirate Wars and the Aegean Sea Operations, clustered around naval privacy impacting our trade as we got our footing as a nation.
- At the dawn of the 19th century many of our wars, invasions and occupations began to shift to match our growing imperial ambitions. The annexation of Hawaii, the Spanish-American war, the Banana Wars and others marked a shift away from being satisfied with a nation from “sea to shining sea” but a nation increasingly interested in holding colonies abroad.
- In the 80’s and 90s there were a number of wars that could be loosely classified as humanitarian interventions that attempted to stabilize regions or intervene in ongoing conflicts. While noble in their intention, it cannot be reasonably argued that combatants in places like Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo sought to invade the U.S.
- There have been a number of wars that removed dictators and/or helped provide for democratic elections. Even as we cheer the removal of dictators we must wrestle with the fact that we have been very inconsistent on this issue (we are very comfortable with some oppressive regimes, but then others deserve to be invaded and overthrown?) and that none of these dictators sought to invade us.
Almost none of these wars were against a reasonable threat to our sovereignty.
The vast majority of all our wars, including wars engaged in during the Cold War and the subsequent Global War on Terror, were not against an enemy that had any reasonable desire or capacity to invade the United States and do away with our freedoms. Did we really think that Cubans were going to land in Florida and march into D.C. after they freed themselves from Spanish rule? Do we believe the Vietnamese were going to build a navy and invade the West Coast after they fought off French colonial rule and our subsequent proxy war against the USSR? Do we believe the Taliban were planning on uniting the various groups in Afghanistan, revealing previously hidden vast resources to build a military, and then para-drop into the U.S.?
From this list of all the wars involving the United States military I only see perhaps four that I believe could be reasonably argued to have presented conflicts that threatened our freedom: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 (though Britain was not trying to force us back into the British Empire), the Civil War (though if the South had won our Constitution would simply not have been changed) and World War Two (assuming Germany and Japan would have invaded if they won in Europe and the Pacific).
If this is correct, that means 4/107 or 3.7% of our wars have actually been about our national sovereignty and the freedoms guaranteed by our nation.
If they were not for freedom, or defending us against a threat to our freedom, what were they really about?
Ultimately, I would argue most of our wars are about land, resources, and money.
The wars against Native Americans were to take their land and resources, enabling national, personal and corporate profit.
The wars against pirates were about our ability to trade and make money without interference.
The early wars of empire were about establishing and dominating commerce and profit in places like Cuba, the Philippines and the Nicaragua. We illegally militarily annexed Hawaii because some missionaries turned sugar barons didn’t want to pay higher taxes on sugar.
Examining our efforts at regime change from Hawaii to Iraq, including invasions and wars but also CIA and more covert operations, there is a rather reliable pattern that propels us into war and our troops into harms way. 1) A Western corporation is conducting business in a foreign country and that country limits their profits in some way (like establishing better rights for local workers). 2) That corporation complains to U.S. politicians and lobbies them to intervene on their behalf. They hide their economic issue behind national security issues. 3) Convinced or bribed to act, politicians sell the war to the American public, hiding the economic issue by explaining it as an issue relating to freedom or national security. They invoke and reinforce the “Troops fight for freedom” narrative to silence dissent and rally support for the invasion.
On a related not, as a capitalistic society that searches for exploitative profit in every aspect of our society, many people and businesses have learned to make lucrative profits off of war, regardless of who wins, or the underlying morality of the wars. This provides a perverse incentive to go to war for war’s sake. It also encourages tense relationships with foreign powers so that the perpetual specter of war provides a fear to justify military spending even in peace time.
Some final thoughts…
Overall, considering what has been discussed here and other aspects of our history and foreign policy, suggesting that the “troops fight for freedom” does not appear to be a true claim. At the very least it does not appear to be true the overhwelming majority of the time if we consider occasions where U.S. troops have actually been deployed.
Using this slogan to silence dissent is an undemocratic and disingenuous way to shut down conversations about our domestic and foreign policy. Anyone concerned about the welfare of our troops should be interested in this conversation and critical of nationalistic slogans like this because if the underlying rationale for most of our wars has not been securing our freedom, what are the real reasons we have sent out troops into harms way, and are these reasons worthy of the sacrifices we are asking those troops to make?