How Best to Thank a Veteran? Avoid More Unjust Wars

A 2017 poll found that about half of Americans would support launching an unprovoked war on a country that poses no near-term threat.

On Veterans Day, many Americans will approach a veteran to say, “thank you for your service.” (In most cases, the veteran being thanked will respond somewhat awkwardly, feeling slightly uncomfortable and undeserving, though understanding that the speaker’s heart is in the right place.) The evening news will cover the local parades; the anchors may briefly note the high rates of veteran suicides and the overburdened VA healthcare system. 

By November 12, most Americans will have mentally moved on to other cares — until Memorial Day, when we will do it all again.

This year, as one of thousands of veterans who suffered moral injury in the Iraq War, I ask that in addition to the annual “thank you for your service” that you also “thank” veterans by helping us avoid waging unjust wars. 

A war is considered unjust if it is either waged without a just cause (i.e., responding to an attack or an imminent threat) or is fought in a manner that disregards the warfighting principles of military necessity, civilian distinction, proportionality or humanity. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a stark example of a preventative war that lacked a just cause, as America was not attacked by Iraq nor was there any threat of an imminent Iraqi attack on the U.S. In fact, a military attack on another state in the absence of an imminent threat is widely considered to be aggression. Conversely, the war in Afghanistan was just, as it was in direct response to the al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, which clearly was an act of aggression. 

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These warfighting rules are deeply engrained in the U.S. military. In fact, the U.S. military often accepts great risk to our own servicemembers in order to reduce harm to civilians caught in the fray. And when there are violations of these jus in bello principles, the military justice system holds us accountable.

But who should be held morally responsible for launching a preventative war, like the Iraq War, and its associated costs?

First, the price paid for the Iraq War. The war is estimated to have cost more than $2.0 trillion, with U.S. casualties including 4,400 servicemembers killed, and more than 32,000 wounded; and these are the figures before adding on the costs associated with the outgrowth war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. There are also the hidden wounds of the war that affect thousands of veterans. The VA estimates that up to 20 percent of all servicemembers that served in Iraq have PTSD and an unknown number are struggling with moral injury. The term moral injury is relatively new, but an ageless concept that Homer described 3,000 years ago in the Greek epic poem, the Iliad. Moral injury is commonly confused with PTSD; however, it’s a distinct wound that is suffered from an unjust war. In essence, it is a betrayal of “what’s right” in our conscience and it causes guilt, shame, anger, and depression.

On most days, I struggle to cope with my personal belief that the men and women who died during the Iraq War, did so in vain, for a cause not worthy of them. Since leaving the Army, I have had the recurring dream where I am face-to-face with a surviving parent and am asked, “What was my son fighting for?” Do I lie to soothe the mourning parent or share my deepest shame that their child’s death was needless? Before I can respond, I am awake.

However, as much as many veterans have suffered, I try and maintain some perspective; the costs to Iraqi civilians and society was even greater as millions of Iraqis were forced to flee their homes and over a hundred thousand civilians were killed during the fighting, destabilizing the entire region. 

Now, the lines of accountability are clear. President Bush, with the endorsement of Congress, made the decision to wage the Iraq War. But the decision wasn’t made in a vacuum; moral responsibility is diffused through the American people.

The preeminent military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz explains in his seminal work On War that a “remarkable trinity” is required to wage war, commonly understood as the government, the military and the people. The government provides the political purpose; the military, the means; and the population, the “passion” and “will” to fight. Public sentiment, as it was in the lead-up to the Iraq War, is an essential factor in any decision to go to war. 

Just before the Iraq War invasion, only 36 percent of the country believed Iraq posed an imminent threat to the U.S., yet nearly three-fourths of all Americans believed a war with Iraq was still morally justified. 

At face value, our morality appears irrational. 

Yet if we examine the number of Americans who believe in waging preventative wars against rising powers and squelching potential threats, these figures actually make sense. In 2003, Pew Research reported that two-thirds of Americans believed that the U.S. is justified in using military force against countries that may seriously threaten the U.S. in the future but have yet to attack us. Even in 2017, with the Iraq War follies still fresh, according to the same poll, about half of the country would still support the decision to start an unprovoked war against a possible, future threat.

And in a poll conducted this year, 70 percent of Americans favored the use of U.S. troops to take preventative military action to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, regardless of Iran’s intentions to actually use them.

Since 9/11, the American people have been emanating the “passion” and “will” required in Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity” for our leaders to exploit and wage preventative wars.

These are troubling statistics. If this sizable portion of Americans’ viewpoint for justifying future wars is to “shoot upon suspicion,” whether it’s in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, or some other latent threat, then we will be ensuring a costly and martial future through this low threshold for conflict. As the global leader, our actions will also undermine international norms. Other states will follow our lead and view other nations through the same Hobbesian lens, attacking their own over-the-horizon threats. This will lead to more unnecessary wars, deaths, and destruction—as was the case during the frequent balance-of-power wars in 18th-century Europe.

Decisions on war and peace are ultimately made by our national leaders. But the American people are also empowered to influence our elected officials and ensure future wars are solely wars of necessity and only waged when all other options have failed. 

So how do we change this dangerous paradigm, and get Americans to take ownership of the decision to wage war? First, we all need to examine the decision to go to war as if we had personal “skin in the game.” We should make an honest assessment of the situation and ask ourselves, “Would I send a son, daughter, or loved one to fight and die for this cause?” If the answer is no, then the war probably lacks a just cause and Americans should voice their concerns and send the message to Washington that we will not support an unnecessary war. 

However, to make an informed decision, the American people should demand greater government transparency, in order to gain an accurate understanding of the threat. With the proliferation of hyper-partisan news, manipulative social media, foreign propaganda, and deep fake subversive influencing techniques, it will be increasingly difficult for the average American to distinguish scaremongering from a legitimate threat that requires a rightful military response. Therefore, we must all become more critical and even skeptical of the information presented to us. 

We owe this much to the men and women who might be sent into harm’s way on our behalf. This is the “thank you” they all deserve on Veterans Day.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.