Although Americans generally see democracy as an alternative to war, our democracy has been at war since its first days. Every generation of Americans has experienced extended military conflict that killed thousands of people, consumed mountains of treasure and changed the fabric of the country.
But our wars have never really ended on the date when battlefield hostilities ceased. The costs are always greater than anticipated, and we pay the bills much longer than we expect.
The goals of war — independence, union, resources and security — are rarely achieved as decisively as leaders promise. Adversaries rarely disappear, and their successors are often more threatening.
Numerous generations in retrospect have questioned whether their wars had been worth fighting. Would Americans re-fight the War of 1812, the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War if given another chance? The Second World War is the striking exception: the only American war that does not inspire serious regrets after the fact.
Our regrets are not because we devalue the courage, patriotism and sacrifice of our soldiers. Rather, it is because we care so deeply about the sacrifices of our warriors that we almost inevitably question why we sent them into harm’s way, and what their brave efforts achieved.
The deaths, the injuries and the debts linger over our society even after war has long passed. In fact, war has been a consistent engine of change in the United States far from the battlefields.
In 1786 about 4,000 Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts took up arms (“Shays’ Rebellion”) to demand better treatment in return for their service. Their resistance convinced many Americans, including George Washington, that the new country needed a strong federal government to control local separatist impulses. The continuing pains of war motivated the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
The decades after the Civil War witnessed similar pressures when soldiers returned home with poor health, broken families and dismal economic prospects. Federal pensions to Union soldiers became the first national social welfare program, sending millions of dollars each year from the treasury as guaranteed benefits to citizens and their closest kin.
Former Confederate soldiers did not receive these benefits, exacerbating sectional tensions and motivating many Southern states, including Texas, to create their own social welfare systems for former soldiers.
The suffering of World War I veterans during the Great Depression, their demands for a “bonus” and their brutal treatment by federal authorities contributed, after 1932, to the New Deal. President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared that the United States had to fight a “war” on suffering that promised sustenance and security to patriotic citizens ravaged by an economic catastrophe they could not control.
The countless federal and state agencies created during the 1930s used the military as a model for putting people to work building roads, parks, schools and other public facilities.
After World War II, the need to help millions of returning soldiers motivated another monumental shift in American society through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “GI Bill.”
The GI Bill created our modern systems of higher education, home finance and consumer-driven economic growth. The service of African Americans and other minorities in the war also motivated the first major federal acts to desegregate war industries and the armed forces themselves.
In the coming years, we should expect the pressures for federal assistance to increase from veterans of our recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other regions, despite efforts to limit federal spending. Our returning soldiers need costly physical and mental care, and better-funded agencies to manage that care. The deaths and the suffering of the survivors and their families will surely motivate us to do more for public education, health and welfare.
On this Memorial Day we should not only thank our courageous service members, but also think deeply about the wars we have fought. We should begin planning for the continuing costs and accept the changes that those costs will bring. Addressing the true burden of war is our greatest patriotic duty.
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and holds a joint appointment in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
Like us on Facebook.