Reflections on Memorial Day, 2006

Originally posted Memorial Day 2006

Various commentators on the network political shows on Sunday, May 28 reminded us to take some time to remember, on Memorial Day, those who had died in our current and past wars. Some even suggested that we do so at a particular time: editor Dan Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, for example, suggested 3:00 p.m. I didn’t set aside a particular time, but throughout the day I did think about those who lost their lives. Indeed, I started on Sunday evening when I watched Andy Rooney. Now, I’m not a fan of Andy Rooney, who is silly much too often for my taste, but this was different. It was a replay of a 2005 segment that was not only devoid of silliness, but also quite powerful. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Rooney made two main points. First, it makes no sense to say, as so many commentators do, that those who were killed in our wars “gave their lives.” As Rooney pointed out, they didn’t give their lives; their lives were taken from them. Second, Rooney suggested that our goal should be not to glorify war, but to figure out how to have less of it in the future.

I tend to be a literalist, or what some people call a textualist. I look at what words mean and I talk, think, and act accordingly. So, for example, when I look at the term “Memorial Day,” I think the purpose should be to remember those who died in past wars. Thus the word “Memorial.” But more and more people seem to think of Memorial Day as a day to honor our current soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Then they take the next jump – from honoring people currently in the military to using Memorial Day to endorse whatever people in the military, and their civilian leaders, are doing. As a result, much of the emotion of Memorial Day gets transferred from respecting and honoring the dead to refusing to question what the military and its civilian leaders are currently doing. And what the military is currently doing – namely, waging war in Iraq – ensures that there will be no shortage of future dead soldiers for us to mourn on future Memorial Days. Does that seem crazy to you? It certainly does to me.

I’m not alone in this. I was talking recently to a friend and former student, who is an officer in the U.S. Army. He is back from one tour in Iraq and training to go on another tour this summer. He told me that he often runs into people who like him and like people in the military generally and who confess that they think it’s wrong to question the war in Iraq because questioning that war would seem like a betrayal. My friend, the Army officer, gets very frustrated by this. He assures them that he wants them to question the war in Iraq because he wants people raising tough questions for his government to answer. Moreover, he points out to them, he wants them to question the war because no matter what he thinks of it, he wants people in America to actually act as if they’re free and not just mouth platitudes about freedom.

That brings me to the most sensitive issue about Memorial Day: the issue of freedom. We often hear that those who died in past wars died for our freedom. Even Andy Rooney said that. But did they? I know that many of them believed they did. But believing something doesn’t make it so. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No, calling a tail a leg don’t make it a leg.” Start with the definition of freedom. By “freedom” I mean the right to own property and use it in peaceful ways, to speak and write, and to associate with those with whom we want to associate and not with those with whom we don’t, to name some of the most important freedoms. All these freedoms are under attack in the United States, but the main attackers are not foreign governments or foreign militaries; the main attackers are officials in our governments – federal, state, and local. By using eminent domain, zoning laws, and architectural review boards, local governments frequently assault our freedom to own property. By using FCC censorship, the federal government has been attacking our freedom of speech for almost as long as the FCC has existed. Various state and federal agencies assault freedom of association by telling employers on what grounds they may hire and fire. But do any of these major attacks on freedom sound like things that foreign governments have done to us or even threatened to do to us?

It’s true that if some governments that existed in the world had been willing and able to take over the United States, we would be less free now. But was that typically a threat that the United States faced? Work your way backwards through the major wars that the United States has been involved in over the last 100 years. It’s hard to argue that Saddam Hussein was a threat to any of the freedoms I mentioned above. Ditto with Ho Chi Minh, who wanted mainly to get the U.S. government, like the French government before it, out of Vietnam. Ditto with the North Koreans in the early 1950s. With World War II, there might have been a threat to our freedom had Hitler triumphed in Europe, but even that’s a stretch. Hitler never expressed ambitions to take over the United States – his goal was always to the East – but even if he had expressed such ambitions, his ability to do so was close to zero. The Atlantic Ocean was a huge buffer. The other main U.S. foe in World War II, the Japanese government, didn’t threaten our freedom: indeed, it was upset about the U.S. government’s restrictions on freedom, namely the freedom to ship oil and other goods to Japan. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm was no threat to our freedom before or during World War I. So it’s hard to make the argument that “they” died for our freedom.

None of this is to denigrate those hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives. And it doesn’t mean that there weren’t other things, such as the fate of Western Europeans, worth dying for. But then we should say that. Does the fact that many people insist that American soldiers died for our freedoms mean that they think the choice to go to war wouldn’t have been as clear if the goal – other people’s fates and not our freedom – had been named? If Memorial Day is to have any meaning other than a crude, propagandistic one, it shouldn’t mean that we remember selectively. We should remember the losses and, if we are to minimize future losses, we should also remember why our government got us into these wars.

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life (Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at and

© Copyright 2006 by David R. Henderson. For permission to reprint, please contact