Death in Vain
Dr. Robert Jay Lifton of the Department of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School has an excellent article entitled “Americans as Survivors”in the June 2, 2005, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Lifton points out how survivors feel a sense of debt to the dead, a need to placate them or carry out their wishes in order to justify their own survival. This psychology applies even to distant survivors, as in the case of Americans in general in regard to those who die in our nation’s wars.
This need to honor the fallen heroes of yesterday has been used throughout history to motivate survivors to fight on or to support those doing the fighting, not only in the same war, but also in some possible future war. Indeed as Dr. Lifton points out, “There are probably few wars in history that were not fought on the basis of meanings given to the trauma of a previous war — that is, in relation to a mission to undo, reverse, or in some way alter the earlier outcome.”
If Iraq was not like Vietnam when we invaded, it has become increasingly like Vietnam since the invasion. As in Vietnam, our military is becoming frustrated by the inability to suppress the insurgency in spite of superior force, and our citizenry is growing weary of the cost of the war in terms of lives and money. The Bush Administration is attempting to use the psychological “debt to the dead” mentality, as Johnson and Nixon did regarding Vietnam, by saying withdrawal of our troops from Iraq would mean the almost 2,000 American troops killed in Iraq would have died in vain. Abraham Lincoln used the same argument in the Gettysburg Address, when there was growing opposition in the North to the War to End the Rebellion by the South.
In every war, many soldiers and even more civilians have arguably died in vain. Supposedly every death on the “losing” side was in vain. Yet many such dead “losers” are in fact honored by their defeated constituencies, as in this example regarding monuments to dead Confederates. Many wars are fought for unclear reasons which often become even more confused as the war continues. The confusion is sometimes carried over into the terms of the treaty ending the war, and the combined confusion often leads to future conflicts.
If you tend to think of all wars as having a winning side and a losing side, here are some American wars to think about further:
American Revolutionary War - the law abiding American colonists who remained loyal to the Crown did not consider themselves winners because America won the war. In fact, many “died in vain” at the hands of other Americans during the war and many others left for Canada and Britain.
War to End the Rebellion by the South - that the South lost the so-called Civil War is obvious militarily and by the Appomattox paperwork, but many in the South seem to still be fighting it.
Korean War - as this time line shows, this war is only in cease fire status, with 33,741 American battle deaths.
Vietnam - when all the stated goals and objectives are abandoned and the enemy is allowed to achieve all his objectives and goals, that is a loss.
Gulf War - many Americans who were unable or unwilling to admit that we lost in Vietnam were thrilled to have a chance to prove America is still capable of winning a war, when Bush the First, with UN and international support, got us into the Gulf War. We were clearly on the victorious side, yet the stated and achieved goals of the War were not enough to satisfy American war hawks.
Invasion of Iraq - one still viable reason we got into this war is to satisfy war hawks by giving another chance to salvage their pride from the Vietnam loss and to expand the goals of the Gulf War, even without UN and international approval.
The best time to consider the vainness of war deaths is before entering into a war. It the goals are not clearly stated and reasonably capable of attainment, then the war cannot be won and the war deaths will be in vain. This is the lesson of the Vietnam War which we ignored in invading Iraq. In invading Iraq, we also ignored a lesson from our own Revolutionary and Civil wars - that disputes between citizens of the same nation need to be resolved by those citizens themselves and not by outsiders.