This Memorial Day, Let’s Remember The Real American Interest

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
Font Size:

How do we define the national interest?

We used to think of it as something that served, well, the interests of the nation — but more importantly, the people within it. A nation is not an idea, an economy, or a geographical location; it is a people, rooted in time and place, tradition and history. Today, however, our leaders define the national interest as something else entirely. The great statesman today is the one who actively abandons this concrete conception of the national interest and instead drags his country off to fight in the service of abstractions, of so-called higher goods  — often, or even purposefully, at the expense of his own people.

Memorial Day hearkens back to a time when our leaders still believed that serving the national interest meant serving the people. The history of this all-American holiday honors the men and women who died serving in the U.S. military and dates all the way back to the 1860s.

The Civil War claimed more American lives than any war in U.S. history before or since, and the bloody half-million-man death toll required the establishment of national cemeteries. After the war ended in 1865, towns across the country began holding informal springtime tributes in these cemeteries, laying flowers and reciting prayers at the graves of fallen soldiers.

Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was originally known, was at first only intended to honor the soldiers of the Civil War. The holiday remained loosely organized for decades. Different states and towns all had various traditions. But the era of non-interventionism soon came to an end, and America found itself embroiled in more conflicts around the world. The holiday took on a national character in response to the carnage of the 20th century and evolved into a broader commemoration.

Memorial Day was finally designated a national holiday in 1966, honoring the soldiers who died in conflicts from the Civil War to Vietnam.

“On this Memorial Day,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson at the first national commemoration in Arlington Cemetery, “it is right for us to remember the living and the dead for whom the call of their country has meant much pain and sacrifice.”

“Peace does not come just because we wish for it. Peace must be fought for. It must be built stone by stone,” he continued.

This all sounds beautifully sentimental, but there is a great disconnect between the two statements. The first is rooted in the core concept of the national interest; the latter begins down the slippery slope of abstraction that dominated the second half of the 20th century. (RELATED: How Victimhood Became America’s Most Valuable Currency)

It is indeed “right” for us to remember those who suffered and died for “their country” — emphasis on “their.” They were not fighting some global ideal of liberal democracy, expansive notions of human rights, or to stop tyranny for the sake of a far off land. They were fighting to preserve the way of life that they inherited and that they intended to hand down to their children.

The Civil War preserved the Union under Lincoln’s correct assumption that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” With the European powers already in decline, WWI established the U.S. as a global leviathan and cemented the economic and political power necessary to build the American Century. WWII fought tyranny in a far-off land, though only after Japan launched a sneak attack on U.S. territory.

But things took a turn as it became less clear what we were fighting for. What exactly is the fight for “peace,” and who exactly does it serve? Is it a definable peace that favors our own people and their well-being, or an abstract peace — an end to all conflict and discord, a leveling of all humanity, a struggle for technocratic utopia? In the post-war era, America held the greatest power in world history and the grandest ambitions, but we lost all the self-confidence necessary to defend what mattered most.

The post-war peace came to mean something entirely alien to our ancestors, actively hostile to the country they built. It meant building sprawling networks of international agencies to check national ambitions, including our own. It meant building a “world economy,” a nation of “global citizens” with no connection to time or place. We siphoned off our wealth in the name of “international stability,” imported foreign masses and called it “justice.” We waged wars for “democracy,” to oust “evil” rulers who trampled their own people’s “human rights.” We now strive only for the idea of a perpetual peace that will never come and can never be — and all the while, it is the American people who pay the price.

When it comes to foreign conflicts, abstractions like justice, democracy, and world peace can never be in our true national interest. There may be some instances of overlap, in concrete terms, narrowly defined. But another peoples’ interests should never be confused with our own. (RELATED: US How We Built A World Meant To Cave To The Mob)

The modern world is an increasingly dangerous place. China seeks to rebuild the international order in its own image. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed our own leaders’ mad ambitions to remake the world. The flare-up between Israel and Hamas threatens to ignite the entire region. As we remember the hundreds of thousands of service members who died fighting for their country this Monday, let us hope our leaders find the strength to turn away from the failures of recent history and instead draw inspiration from the wisdom of our not-yet-forgotten past.