Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park - New Haven, CT

The Call of Duty

Older men declare war.
But it is the youth that must fight and die.

—Herbert Hoover, 1944

Between the tides of New Haven Harbor and the traffic of I-95, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park offers firmness and constancy. Its anchor is a tall granite “V,” inscribed with the names of local soldiers killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War.

The V is not the park’s only monument, and Vietnam is not its only war. Another stone remembers locals who fought in Korea. Another remembers those who died during “the war on terrorism,” presumably referring to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As Memorial Day approaches, the first impulse is to honor these soldiers’ sacrifices. But it’s morally if not politically correct to go further: to think honestly about what they were led to fight for, especially when the answer offers little if any solace, because that’s the sort of history that must not repeat.

The Korean War, as President Eisenhower stated following the 1953 truce that ended it, was a “brutal and futile battle.” At a cost that included more than 8,000 American lives, the war’s initial objective, to drive North Korean invaders out of the South, had been accomplished in three months by a US-led international force. But America’s leaders, willing to risk more to achieve a more total victory, successfully lobbied the UN to expand the mission parameters. Dismissing clear warnings from China, the international force invaded the North—pulling China, its borders now threatened, into the fray and creating an unwinnable quagmire. The war dragged on for nearly three more years, killing another 30,000 Americans and gaining nothing in the balance.

It was, as a 2013 article in The Atlantic more thoroughly explains, the beginning of a catastrophic and still-ongoing pattern of extralegal and ill-considered American wars. Ceding undue power to the executive branch, none of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq were formally declared by Congress, as is constitutionally required, and all were marked by major failures of leadership, including poorly defined objectives, extreme overconfidence and contradictory motives, rhetoric and actions.

Two of the wars—in Vietnam and Iraq—were just plain manufactured. Critical details of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which President Johnson used to gin up public and congressional support for full-fledged involvement in the Vietnam War, were fabricated. Later, during the hotly contested 1968 presidential election, Johnson’s eventual successor, Richard Nixon, appears to have used a backchannel to scuttle peace talks—thus denying his political opponents the PR benefits of ending the unpopular war, which would last another five years, killing nearly 60,000 Americans in total along with millions of Vietnamese people.

More than three decades later, to sell its case for war in Iraq—which, alongside the war in Afghanistan, it began plotting mere hours after the 9/11 attacks—the administration of President George W. Bush repeatedly and forcefully asserted two crucial claims as established facts: that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda, which had perpetrated 9/11, and that Hussein was an imminent threat wielding “weapons of mass destruction.” Even at the time, both claims were unsubstantiated, and it wasn’t long before they were entirely discredited. But by then the war was already on. Officially lasting from 2003 to 2011, it took thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and trillions of dollars.

The complete costs of these wars aren’t knowable. We do know they include the suffering of the physically and mentally wounded, the anguish of families and friends and the seeds of future conflicts, among countless other considerations. On Memorial Day and every day, it is our duty as citizens to remember the costs and history of war; to carefully examine the motives and intentions of any leaders who wish to wage it; and to hold those leaders accountable should they fail the test.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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