Trump’s reported comments about the dead soldiers of World War I as “suckers” and “losers” has caused a well-deserved uproar. We may never know whether Trump actually said those things, but the sentiments are certainly in line with the brute cruelty and lack of empathy that marks his long career in business and politics.
However, the evident callousness of Trump’s remarks does not mean that the fallen US soldiers in fact died in a good and noble cause. The majority of the wars fought by the US. have been promoted by elites for profit or territorial expansion. Most Americans have always been “suckers” for these wars. World War I was no exception.
Some of the many wars the US has fought over its history were for legitimate causes or self-defense. The American Revolution/War of Independence, the Civil War and the Second World War in which the US was attacked can be justified in one way or another, though not 100 per cent so. Recall that one of the causes of the American revolt was to overcome British opposition to westward expansion of the colonies and further dispossession of indigenous peoples. Africans enslaved by the American colonists who joined the British cause were offered and received their freedom. Most northern supporters of the Civil War against the slave holders did not initially see emancipation as the main war aim, though the abolition of slavery did eventually became the key outcome. Supporter of the 1812 war with Britain hoped for the US to annex Canada.
Of our other military conflicts, few would argue today, that the Mexican-American War of 1846-7 and the Spanish-American War of 1898 – both widely “popular” at the time — were anything less than imperialist land-grabs. The US annexed half of Mexico and absorbed a string of Spanish colonies in these wars. In 1898 and after, more US soldiers lost their lives suppressing the Philippine movement for independence than had fallen in combat against Spain. The tens of thousands of US soldiers who were killed in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, died for “a mistake” as apologists may claim – or more realistically just illegal wars of aggression.
Even the 1941-45 conflict, often remembered by Americans as “The Good War,” had some very mixed elements. In Europe, the anti-fascist character of the war became paramount, especially after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, but we should recall that some of the key battles were fought over colonial terrain in North Africa and the Middle East. In the Pacific, though Japan launched the war with its “Day of Infamy” attack on December 7, 1941, the inter-colonial or imperial nature of the conflict was predominant. After all, the Japanese bombed a US base at Pearl Harbor which was part of the Hawaiian Islands seized by the US from its indigenous people in 1893 and formally annexed a few years later. Many of the initial Japanese conquests took place against European or American colonial possessions like French Indochina, British Malaya, Dutch Indonesia – and the US Philippine Islands. Japanese rule in these conquered lands was no doubt cruel, though not different in principle from the dirty history of European colonization. In East Asia and the Pacific, of the major powers only the Chinese fought a wholly defensive and justified war against Japanese aggression.
What about the First World War? Pres. Woodrow Wilson had campaigned for re-election in 1916 under the slogan “He kept us out of war!” But early in his second term Wilson changed his tune and began to agitate for the US to join the conflict. Congress duly complied with a declaration of war in April 1917. Wilson, the patron saint of liberal interventionists ever since, asserted that it was a war “to make the world safe for democracy.” How true was that?
The principal US allies in the conflict included Tsarist Russia, whose continental expansion across Europe and Asia had subdued dozens of indigenous nations; Britain and France, the other major powers on “our” side were the world-spanning colonial empires. Less prominent European allies were monarchical Italy and a number of Balkan kingdoms, all of which aimed at territorial expansion through conquest. In the Pacific, the most important US co-belligerent was imperial Japan. Of the US allies, only France then had a republican government which included unrestricted (male) voting rights. Ironically, the “enemy” nations of Germany and Austria had more universal suffrage rights than most of the “democracies” fighting against them. Pre-war Germany had also instituted the most progressive health and social security system anywhere in the world.
As for the US itself, democracy was limited at best. Like in all the other allies, women could not vote, but the US, then at the height of the Jim Crow era, also severely restricted African-American voting rights in the South and racial segregation was the rule almost everywhere. Pres. Wilson himself, born into a slave-holding family in pre-Civil War Virginia, was an ardent racist. He held a special screening at the White House of the vicious pro-Klan epic film “Birth of a Nation” and introduced Jim Crow segregation into the DC governing institutions. Wilson claimed to support “self-determination” but the US maintained its own empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific, while dispatching the marines to invade Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Cuba, among other places. Opponents of the war and union activists were regularly arrested, deported or jailed.
It is true that in the post-war years women gradually succeeded in gaining the right to vote in most of the belligerent nations on both sides. But this was the result of decades of agitation – often at great personal sacrifice – that began decades earlier. In the US, it took generations more for African-Americans to achieve practical voting rights in much of the country.
And as for “self-determination,” not a single European or American colony won its independent after the war ended. National rights were in those days matters reserved only for white peoples. Instead of liberation, the African and Asian colonial possessions of the losing powers were simply redistributed as war spoils among the victors. It wasn’t until after another world war that colonial independence movements achieved much success, often after brutal liberation wars. In many parts of the globe, especially the Middle East, we are still living with the dire consequences of European colonialism that was, if anything, reinforced by the First World War.
So the 1914-18 war did nothing to “make the world safe for democracy.” Some grudging progress was made after the fighting ended but as a whole the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians achieved little of value.
During that war, more than a hundred thousand US soldiers died and tens of thousands more were severely wounded out of the millions of American troops sent into the maelstrom of inter-state and imperialist conflict in Europe. Others were killed during US interventions in Siberia and Murmansk, along with its allies, to overturn the Russian revolution and reinstall the Whites into power. These US deployments, including units that were transferred to Siberia from anti-insurgency operations in the Philippines, continued for two years after the First World War had supposedly ended. The US troops were withdrawn only after concerted protests by the soldiers and their relatives back in the US. Hundreds of them died in these useless interventions.
However much Trump’s alleged remarks may have been heartless and cruel, it doesn’t follow that we should consider the US soldiers killed in the First World War as “heroes.” No doubt many of them fought and died heroically. Some may even have believed idealistically in the allied mission, but most were draftees who knew little about the roots of the war. It is hard be a “hero” for a bad cause.
If it is callous for Trump to refer to those Americans who died fighting in 1917-18 as “losers” then perhaps it is more accurate to call most of them simply “victims.” The same may be true for the tens of thousands of US soldiers who died later in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Jeff Klein is an author and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region, who writes about history from anti-war and anti-colonialist perspective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.