Memorial Day is an annual chance to assess the fundamental character of the U.S.
It is often heard from some quarters that the luster of America is dimmed by its occasional association with unsavory governments. And indeed, we have, at one time or another, been aligned with forces as problematic as South Vietnam’s struggling and highly imperfect democracy, Chile’s generals, and — by far the worst — Stalin’s U.S.S.R. (during World War II). In the Middle East, conservatives are now in the habit of pointing out the repressive nature of putative U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, while the left allows no one to forget that America briefly tilted toward Saddam’s Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s. (Of course, the overwhelming majority of Iraq’s military force was provided by the Soviets, with France in second place. No one else came close.)
While one can sometimes make a reasoned argument that U.S. policy was mistaken in a particular country, the overall tenor of this criticism is not at all illuminating. This is because there have been so few free and decent nations in the history of the world that one cannot fairly judge a free and decent nation by its friends. Perhaps such a judgment can be made on the basis of a nation’s very best friends — in our case, uniformly other democracies — but not when the circle is widened to include all those with whom a nation has interacted in common defense. Circumstances of dire strategic necessity often impel short-term alignments with unsavory characters in order to avert a greater evil. Free and decent nations that wish to survive in a dangerous world do not have the option of foregoing such assistance where they can find it.
No, the proper test of a nation is not in its friends, but in its enemies. And in this test, America has never failed. As we prepare to pay our respects to those who have fallen in the foreign wars of the United States, it is useful to recall that they fell, uniformly, at the hand of tyrants, thugs, and usurpers.
Who has the United States counted as its enemies? A British monarch who systematically sought to deprive Americans of their natural rights, including consent of the governed. The Barbary Coast pirates. A Mexican dictator, Santa Anna, whose destruction of the free Mexican Constitution of 1824 provoked the Texan revolution, which itself ultimately led through a chain of events to the war of 1846-48. A decrepit Spanish empire that held Cuba and the Philippines through sheer brutality. The forces of German/Austrian militarism in Europe. Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. The Soviet dictatorship in the Cold War. Kim Il-Sung, and Mao Tse-Tung in Korea. The forces of Leninist terror from Vietnam to Central America to Grenada. The Khmer Rouge. Muammar Qaddafi and the Ayatollah Khomeini. The ethnic cleansers of Greater Serbia. The Taliban. Saddam Hussein, once to free Kuwait and once to free Iraq itself.
Indeed, nearly every week brings a new discovery in Iraq: A new mass grave, a new prison, a new torture chamber. Just last week two more graves with 3,000 and 800 remains were uncovered, victims of the Baath regime. And human rights experts say we have only found the tip of the iceberg. The wisdom of the war cannot be judged except from a longer view than we can now take. The morality of the war, though, can hardly be disputed by anyone who harbors any concern for the freedom and well-being of Iraqis.
In this sense, Iraq is a metaphor for all that we should celebrate on Memorial Day. Our military cemeteries have not been filled in vain. Those who lie at rest have won for themselves eternal gratitude and honor. Our nation has also won the eternal honor that can only be conferred by the nature of those against whom we wage war. And in the last century, without fail, our dearest enemies have been as well the dearest enemies of all humanity.