Meditations on Memorial Day

Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Given Franklin’s leadership in the struggle for American independence, we can infer that he did not think that there never was a war that was necessary, or a war that was worth its cost. But he reminds us that even necessary wars have terrible costs.

I thought about Franklin when I read an eloquent column on the meaning of Memorial Day by the novelist Mark Helprin, who is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He lamented:

Though if by and large we ignore the debt we owe to those who fell at Saratoga, Antietam, the Marne, the Pointe du Hoc, and a thousand other places and more, our lives and everything we value are the ledger in which it is indelibly recorded.

It’s a worthy sentiment, one heard frequently in Memorial Day addresses, and we do indeed owe our lives and our pursuit of happiness to the freedom that America’s soldiers have sometimes had to defend.

But I can’t help wondering: Have all of America’s wars have been necessary to American freedom? Helprin mentioned the Second Battle of the Marne, the great turning point of World War I and the first battle in which Americans started experiencing the enormous casualties that Europeans had been facing for nearly four years. The problem is that World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country, the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally, World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. World War I was the worst mistake of the 20th century, the mistake that set in motion all the tragedies of the century. The deaths of those who fell at the Marne are all the more tragic when we reflect that they did not in fact serve to protect our lives and all that we value.

Did the wars in Vietnam and Iraq protect American lives and liberties? Two weeks ago, Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush said that discussing whether the Iraq war was a mistake “does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot.” It’s understandable that an aspiring commander-in-chief would want to spare the feelings of those who lost a loved one in Iraq. But surely it’s more important that a commander-in-chief ask tough questions about when it’s advisable to go to war.

In my book The Libertarian Mind, I wrote about the effects of war: not just death on a large scale but the destruction of families, businesses, and civil society. And thus:

War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible. Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism….We should understand the consequences of war for our entire social order and thus go to war only when absolutely necessary.

On this weekend we should mourn those who went to war, such as my father, who planned and participated in the liberation of Europe, and his brother who was lost off the coast of Normandy, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.