As we soon pause to celebrate the anniversary of our nation’s independence, it seems appropriate to consider the vital role played by the American military in the creation of our nation and its transformation of our world.
We are not a militaristic nation, but we are a nation that is deeply proud of its military. We are not a perfect people. We have made many mistakes. We have not always lived up to our noble ideals. It is important to remember what happened at Wounded Knee, My Lai and Abu Ghraib. But it is also important to remember the amazing things that the U.S. military has done in our world.
On April 19, 1775, British soldiers marched from Boston to Lexington and Concord to seize a cache of arms. They were confronted on the Lexington Green by citizen soldiers who were farmers, merchants and tradesmen. The “shot heard round the world,” so named by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem “Concord Hymn,” was fired later that day on the Old North Bridge. Liberty was not a gift of the English crown; she had to be taken by force by an armed rebel populace.
Later that year, American forces invaded British Canada. My own ancestor, James Van Rensselaer, was a citizen soldier in the siege of Quebec, and his commanding officer was Benedict Arnold.
The American Revolution is often portrayed in rosy colors due to its remoteness and patriotic outcome. It was, in fact, a horrendously bloody conflict. Recent scholarship has placed the total number of Americans killed in the American Revolution at around 25,000, out of a total population of the 13 colonies in 1775 of 2.4 million. Thus, more than 1 percent of the population was killed over the course of the war’s nearly eight-and-half years.
After the American Revolution, we would fight Britain again in the War of 1812. We also fought our way westward across the continent, engaging in many brutal wars against the Native Americans.
In 1846, President Polk launched a war against Mexico. This was and remains a controversial chapter in American history. Congressman Abraham Lincoln opposed the war. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes to support the war and was briefly jailed. Even Ulysses Grant, who fought in the war, condemned its prosecution in his memoirs. But without the Mexican-American War, the states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico would never have been added to the Union. Without the Mexican-American War, the United States might never have become a coast-to-coast superpower.
Imagine for a moment what World War II might have been like had Polk not fought the Mexican-American War. It is unlikely that an American naval base would have been built at Pearl Harbor without Polk. If there had been a Pacific base, the Japanese would never have sunk the Arizona to start the war, because the state we call Arizona would have belonged to Mexico. If there had not been Alamogordo in New Mexico where the atomic bomb could be tested, would we have been able to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, thereby ending the war? Without Polk’s war in the 19th century, the United States might not have been strong enough to deal with the challenges of fascism and communism in the 20th century.
Nearly a hundred years ago in 1917, America citizen soldiers went “Over There” with the American Expeditionary Force to fight the Central Powers in World War I. By 1918, German Kaiser William II would abdicate. In 1941, American citizens would get the call to combat Hitler and Imperial Japan. Just over 71 years ago, American soldiers liberated the Nazi concentration camps, such as Buchenwald and Dachau, thereby helping to end the Holocaust. Without American invasions at places like the beaches of Omaha and Anzio, the world would undoubtedly be a darker place.
After World War II, American forces remained engaged with Europe, joining NATO and garrisoning the nations of former adversaries during the Cold War. The Cold War was won without a shot being fired.
Today we face the threat of global terror networks that have perpetrated horrors in Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, Calif., and, most recently, Orlando, Fla.
Our enemies must know that Americans do not love war for war’s sake. To do so is the definition of fascism. We are and always have been reluctant warriors. But when provoked, we know how to fight, and we will endure until victory and a lasting peace is won.
Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of those American patriots who have served in our military and those who serve today, we are able to celebrate the Fourth of July and to confront the challenges that face us around the world.
• Christopher Kelly is co-author of “America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth” (Book Publishers Network, 2015).