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What Did They Die For?


Memorial Day is as good an opportunity as any to talk about America’s wars–specifically, the soldiers who died in them.

All told, while many Americans have died in wars, we’ve gotten off lucky compared to many other countries, and particularly countries in Europe, given the massive bloodlettings that occurred in the twentieth century. Our deadliest war is still the Civil War, when it was American against American.

So, in what wars did American soldiers die, and why were those wars fought? This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a list:

  * American Revolutionary War -- From 1775-1783, 6824 Americans died in battle, and up to 70,000 died from all causes. This was, of course, the war that secured our independence from Great Britain. It was a war fought largely to secure the rights of wealthy white men to set their own destiny in the Americas. The major bones of contention were tax and trade policies.
  * Cherokee-American Wars -- These sporadic conflicts occurred between 1776 and 1795, in which thousands of Native Americans and Europeans were killed over, essentially, control of the land. Exact numbers of dead are not known.
  * Northwest Indian War -- From 1785 to 1795, US forces and Native American tribes clashed over (again) control of land and resources. 1221 American troops were killed. At least a thousand Native Americans died, as well, though the numbers could easily be much higher.
  * French and American Quasi-War -- Between 1798 and 1800, American and French ships fought sporadically on the Atlantic Ocean over the US' refusal to pay its debts to France over the latter's assistance during the Revolutionary War. The US contended that the debts were owed to a prior regime (the pre-revolution monarchy) and thus were no longer valid. At least 82 American sailors were killed.
  * First Barbary War -- 35 Americans died battling pirates who'd made a business out of ransoming the crews and cargo of American ships.
  * Tecumseh's War -- Another round of conflict between European settlers and Native Americans over control of lands the latter had lived on for generations. Another war with vague death tolls, at least dozens died on both sides.
  * War of 1812 -- About 15,000 American troops died over a 3-year period, this war was fought mainly over diplomatic and trade disputes, and is considered part of the Napoleonic Wars in that the US was drawn in only because it wanted to protect trade with France, which Britain was warring with at the time.
  * Creek War -- More wars with Native Americans, this time with about 584 American soldiers killed, and at least three times as many Creek fighters killed. This was yet another episode in which the end result was the US government seizing more land from indigenous peoples.
  * Second Barbary War -- From 1815 to 1816, 4 American soldiers died fighting forces that refused to abide by the treaty ending the previous Barbary War.
  * Seminole Wars -- Over the span of 3 wars that occurred between 1816 and 1858, over 1500 American troops died in conflicts with Seminole peoples. Yet again, the US acquired more land, drove natives from their ancestral lands, and massacred most of them in the process.
  * Black Hawk War -- In 1832, 77 (including non-combatants) were killed attacking Native Americans who were attempting to resettle land reserved for them.
  * Mexican-American War -- 1733 American troops died in a conflict with Mexico, mostly over the status and fate of Texas. Mexico considered Texas' revolution and subsequent independence illegitimate--the US government thought otherwise.
  * Civil War -- At least 655,000 soldiers perished in a conflict that divided the country over the issue of slavery, its expansion, and its ultimate fate. It remains the deadliest war in American history in both absolute and relative terms.
  * Dakota War of 1862 -- Mistreated by the American government, Dakota eventually rose up and began attacking settlers. 77 American troops were killed in the process of brutally putting down the uprising.
  * Red Cloud's War -- About 200 Americans died in another Native American conflict, this time over control of some land in central Wyoming.
  * Great Sioux War of 1876 -- After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, Americans decided they wanted control of the region, and fought the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne to get it. About 300 Americans died, along with a similar number of Native Americans.
  * Nez Perce War -- When Nez Perce people refused to leave their ancestral lands, American troops forced them off. 125 US troops died.
  * White River War -- In 1879, tensions between white settlers and and the White River Utes came to a head. 24 US troops were killed, and the Utes were forced from their land.
  * Wounded Knee Massacre -- The US troops weren't the ones massacred here. 25 American troops died, while hundreds of Lakota were slaughtered for refusing to disarm themselves (though most of those killed were not armed).
  * Second Samoan Civil War -- At a cost of 24 American lives, the US gained control of one of the Samoan Islands, which it still holds as a territory today.
  * Spanish-American War -- In 1898, the US attempted to realize its ambitions to take possession of Cuba once and for all. This effort ultimately failed, but the US took over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. 2910 American soldiers died.
  * Philippine-American War -- When the government and people of the Philippines objected to being ceded to the United States, the US invaded and occupied the country. Up to 6165 American soldiers died.
  * Moro Rebellion -- Another military adventure on the Philippines, this time American troops invaded and put down the previously autonomous Moro people. 130 American soldiers perished.
  * Boxer Rebellion -- When Chinese people rebelled against British influence and control, the US helped crush them. Unknown (but probably small) numbers of Americans died in the process.
  * US Occupation of Nicaragua -- The US occupied Nicaragua for two periods between 1912 and 1933. This was part of a series of conflicts known as the Banana Wars, in which US Marines invaded numerous Central American countries in order to secure the interests of American fruit companies operating in those countries, usually against the will of the people of those countries. 141 American soldiers were killed during the occupation.
  * World War I -- The bloodiest war in world history at the time, the US lost 116,708 troops to all causes. The US drafted 2.8 million men into service. Our entry was the result of various provocations by Germany, which drew the US out of an isolationist stance toward European conflicts.
  * Russian Civil War -- In a failed attempt to prop up the unpopular Tsarist regime in Russia, the US intervened alongside several other countries. 167 American soldiers died.
  * World War II -- 407,300 American troops perished in campaigns against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The US arguably provoked both powers: Germany, by offering substantial aid to Great Britain (whom the Germans were trying to conquer), and Japan, by cutting off their oil supplies.
  * Korean War -- A war that ended in a stalemate and gave us today's North and South Korea, the US lost 36,574 soldiers in an effort to keep Communists from taking control of the Korean peninsula.
  * Dominican Civil War -- In 1965, leadership disputes in the formerly American-occupied country led to the outbreak of civil war. The United States intended to avoid a full collapse of the government and a resulting (possibly Communist) revolution. 47 American soldiers lost their lives in this action.
  * Vietnam War -- Another phase of the Cold War, in which the US tried to hold off a complete Communist takeover of Vietnam. 58,315 US troops died and American objectives were not achieved. This war remains deeply controversial given the number of deaths on all sides, allegations of war crimes, and the duration of the conflict. Like other Cold War interventions, Vietnam was a local conflict that the US deepened and lengthened through our involvement.
  * Lebanese Civil War -- 265 US military personnel died in this effort to help stabilize Lebanon, which had seen involvement by both Israeli and Palestinian forces as part of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What began as a peacekeeping mission eventually spiraled out of control and saw the multinational force of which the US was a part contribute to growing chaos, ultimately resulting in a withdrawal and a transition to a different United Nations peacekeeping force.
  * Invasion of Grenada -- 19 American troops died invading this small island nation in response to a counter-revolution, seemingly for little reason other than that a handful of American students studying in the country may potentially (but weren't) have been harmed.
  * Invasion of Panama -- In 1989 and 1990, the US invaded Panama ostensibly to protect American interests there, including 35,000 US citizens and the US-owned Panama Canal and surrounding zone. It is more accurate to say that the US was displeased with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, whom the US had supported as a check on Soviet power in the country, but who over time had become indifferent and even hostile to American demands. Our erstwhile ally then needed to be deposed. 23 US soldiers were killed in the conflict.
  * Gulf War -- 146 US troops died repelling an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Iraq was a former ally of the US--we had supported them against Iran, which had become our enemy after an Islamic revolution deposed the US-backed Shah--but when Saddam Hussein's invasion drew international attention due to brutality and war crimes, the US saw fit to get involved.
  * Somali Civil War -- The US was part of an UN mission to bring food and medical relief to the war-torn east African country. The US also intended to help determine the outcome of the conflict, in which various factions fought for control of the country and regions within it. 18 US soldiers died attempting to apprehend one of the faction leaders. The operation was successful, but public support turned against the American mission and forced a withdrawal.
  * War in Afghanistan -- 2356 US troops have died since our invasion of the country in late 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Taliban, which had been harboring the leadership of al-Qaeda, was successfully deposed but currently controls much of the country. Al-Qaeda itself poses little threat, having fractured into various spinoff movements (including the Islamic State).
  * Iraq War -- On the basis of fabricated evidence and faulty intelligence, and as part of a neoconservative project to transform US-hostile countries into stable, friendly democracies, the US invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, destroyed all existing government institutions, and precipitated a lengthy civil war that currently sees the country split into three. 4491 US troops died in this conflict.

None of this is meant to suggest that US troops are responsible for the poor foreign policy decisions and naked imperialism that many items in this list represent. Soldiers don’t get to choose what wars they fight in. But fight they must–that is what it means to be in the military.

One of the qualifications frequently mentioned for US political candidates is whether or not they “support the troops.” A good candidate must, of course, do so. But I would dare say that “support” should consist of using those troops wisely, rather than merely pausing to pay respect once or twice a year. Dead soldiers may deserve our respect–but then living ones should, too.

On this Memorial Day, consider the many pointless and wrongheaded conflicts in which American–and many other–lives were lost. War has claimed the lives of far too many people all over the world. It is our duty, as human beings, to avoid such deaths as much as possible. Wars don’t solve conflicts. At best, they exhaust the participants enough to make them willing to negotiate. The smart thing, then, is to get to the negotiating table a lot sooner–and avoid wasting so many lives in the first place.

Remember the soldiers who died, and remember also the civilians and countless innocents who died for the poor political decisions of their leaders. This world has seen enough war and death, and perhaps one day Memorial Day can be that, and only that–a day when we remember those who died in wars long past, and are thankful that we no longer make such waste of human potential.