War, patriotism, human rights, and the people we send to fight

It’s Memorial Day weekend, so I shouldn’t be surprised to see nonsense like the following (figure 1):

Fig. 1. Meme from Facebook, May 23, 2015. Fair use.

The creator of the meme (figure 1) demonstrates a complete ignorance both of the history of the U.S. military and of the origin of human rights. First, the U.S. military has not fought a war to defend human rights in the United States since the Revolutionary War. The U.S. is surrounded mostly by water and by Canada and Mexico. The latter countries pose no threat to U.S. security, although the “United States found cause to invade Canada in 1775 and 1812, then developed War Plan Red in the 1920s and 30s, which contemplated a potential invasion of Canada.”[1] More seriously, the U.S. invaded Mexico and made off with “947,570 square miles of land, almost half of its national territory, though less than 1 percent of its population.”[2] Indeed, a major reason for the Revolutionary War itself was that in appreciation for American Indian help in the French and American War, Britain had imposed limitations on colonial westward expansion into the Ohio Valley.[3]

Since 1775, the U.S. has been involved militarily somewhere, somehow, in expeditions where loss of life was at least a possibility in all but sixteen years of its existence. The U.S. is innocent in none of these wars. Even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that rationalized a declaration of war on Germany and Italy, as well as Japan, had been provoked by the U.S. imposition of “a total embargo on scrap iron, a total embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.”[4]

The claim in the meme (figure 1) about rights of free speech and religion is a bit more interesting. But no model of human rights I am aware of attributes those rights to the military. These are generally considered a property of all humans, mostly as individuals, and are considered essential to human dignity.[5] They are not a “gift” of rulers, let alone the military; instead, states are obliged to protect human rights.[6] And indeed, the United States has fallen severely short in meeting this obligation.[7]

Beetle Bailey. Sacramento Bee, May 23, 2015. Fair use.
Fig. 2. Beetle Bailey. Sacramento Bee, May 23, 2015. Fair use.

If ignorance was the only problem with such misguided militarism, we might be able to let it pass. But in fact, military service and war have increasingly become something that others do. “[L]ess than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population is in the armed services today — the lowest rate since World War II.”[8] And when people thank service members for their service,

“So many people give you lip service and offer fake sympathy. Their sons and daughters aren’t in the military, so it’s not their war. It’s something that happens to other people,” said Phillip Ruiz, 46, a former Army staff sergeant in Tennessee who was wounded twice during three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Douglas Pearce, a former Army lieutenant who fought in Afghanistan and is now a marriage and family counselor in Nashville, said civilians seem to think they “can assuage their guilt with five seconds in the airport.”

“What they’re saying is, ‘I’m glad you served so that I didn’t have to, and my kids won’t have to.'”[9]

This is even worse than it sounds. When we send other people, people who are largely isolated from mainstream society,[10] to war on our behalf, we can afford to be cavalier not only about the situations we put them into but even about  how we equip and protect them, as with decisions to retire the A-10 “Warthog” jet and replace it with the troubled F-35.[11] But even worse, we can be cavalier about them when they come home.[12]

But rather than face all that, we line a road with combat boots, plant U.S. flags in them, and stick photos on them. That’s some patriotism.

Correction, May 24, 2015: In the original posting, I stated inaccurately that the U.S. military had not been used to defend human rights in the United States since the Revolutionary War. This neglects deployments such as at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce desegregation.[13] The text has been revised to better reflect my meaning.

  1. [1]Tim Starks, “No Plans for Canada Invasion, Pentagon Leader Says,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, June 19, 2014, http://blogs.rollcall.com/five-by-five/pentagon-leader-no-plans-readied-to-invade-canada/; see also Ishaan Tharoor, “The War of 1812: When the U.S. Invaded Canada — and Failed,” Time, June 18, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/06/18/the-war-of-1812-when-the-u-s-invaded-canada-and-failed/2/
  2. [2]Manuel G. Gonzales, Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 2000), 79.
  3. [3]Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994).
  4. [4]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005), 410.
  5. [5]Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “What are Human Rights?” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Pages/WhatareHumanRights.aspx
  6. [6]Food and Agriculture Organization, A Primer to the Right to Adequate Food, http://www.fao.org/righttofood/kc/dl_en.htm
  7. [7]Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Compilation prepared by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in accordance with paragraph 15 (b) of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 5/1 and paragraph 5 of the annex to Council resolution 16/21: United States of America,” May, 2015, http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/039/92/PDF/G1503992.pdf?OpenElement
  8. [8]David Zucchino and David S. Cloud, “U.S. military and civilians are increasingly divided,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-warrior-main-20150524-story.html
  9. [9]David Zucchino and David S. Cloud, “U.S. military and civilians are increasingly divided,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-warrior-main-20150524-story.html
  10. [10]David Zucchino and David S. Cloud, “U.S. military and civilians are increasingly divided,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-warrior-main-20150524-story.html
  11. [11]James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” Atlantic, January/February 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/12/the-tragedy-of-the-american-military/383516/
  12. [12]Robert Burns, “2012 military suicides hit a record high of 349,” Associated Press, January 14, 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/2012-military-suicides-hit-record-high-349; James Dao and Andrew W. Lehren, “Baffling Rise in Suicides Plagues the U.S. Military,” New York Times, May 15, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/16/us/baffling-rise-in-suicides-plagues-us-military.html; Greg Jaffe, “VA study finds more veterans committing suicide,” Washington Post, January 31, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/va-study-finds-more-veterans-committing-suicide/2013/01/31/1092b330-5a68-11e2-9fa9-5fbdc9530eb9_story.html
  13. [13]Melba Pattillo Beals, Warriors Don’t Cry (New York: Pocket, 1994).

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