Memorial Day. It was designed to be a somber remembrance of the pain and loss suffered by those made the ultimate sacrifice for the security of the nation. Now, however, it seems it’s becoming more a celebration of combat.
On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence told the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy that the world is “a dangerous place” and that future combat isn’t a possibility, but a near-sure deal. “It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life,” he said. “It will happen.”
With all due respect to the Vice President, I find these statements and underlying mentality disturbing. The Commander in Chief’s number one priority is to keep our citizens safe—but his sacred duty to the men and women who wear the uniform is to consider their lives as the most precious commodity our country produces.
Casually sending them to every far-flung mission in the world that’s even possible shows that reality is very different: our senior leaders give very little consideration to their lives.
Especially on this Memorial Day weekend when we’re supposed to honor our war dead, we should reaffirm that we will not sacrifice the life of one American Service Member unless the threat to our country is grave, imminent, or war has been thrust upon us. That’s not presently the case, as the Vice President confirmed.
We send America’s sons and daughters to every conceivable hot spot in the world, irrespective of whether they represent any direct security threats to the United States. If there be any way our policymakers or senior uniformed officials can come up with a distant, hypothetical relation to something that might one day be a security threat, we seem eager to send in the troops or use lethal military power.
Despite what so many alleged experts will breathlessly tell you, there are no threats to American security that requires U.S. combat troops to daily fight in our current combat zones: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Niger, Somalia, Yemen, and many other locations in Africa. We daily risk—and all too often lose—American lives to missions that don’t even keep our country safe. That is a tragedy that should be rectified without delay.
I fully expect the President and Armed Forces to keep our country safe. I expect Congress to support and oversee a strong military that can defend our country against any enemy, from a peer competitor in high-end combat to smaller terrorist strikes. But we dissipate our power by abusing our military this way (which is what we do by engaging them by the thousands in lands across the globe where our security is not at risk).
We should strengthen our ISR-Strike capability to protect our country from any terrorist attack, regardless of where in the world it may originate; we should continue to sharpen our counter-terror sword by strengthening the efforts and cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement officials.
But we first have to get rid of this mentality that we will have to fight, all the time, all over the world. Such a mindset seeks opportunities to fight. It exposes that we don’t consider war abhorrent and to be used only as a last resort to prevent an imminent attack; it has become a policy option of first choice for so many.
I’ve been to war. I’ve fought in high-intensity combat, lo-intensity counterinsurgency battles, and have trained foreign militaries. I’ve seen first-hand the destructive nature of war. The lives it destroys abroad— and the lives of American men and women it destroys (some lose their lives, others their limbs, and still others invisible wounds that may afflict them and their families for a lifetime).
You want to honor the memory of those who have sacrificed so much for this nation on Memorial Day? The best way to honor those who have fallen is to make sure their sacrifices prevent future generations from having to fight. A good first step towards that goal would be to stop boasting about how much combat our current generation of troops will see and start looking for non-lethal ways to foster and maintain peace.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.