The “Forever Wars” Enshrined: Visiting Mar-SAYLZ

Lambert here: Of our various post-AUMF wars, I keep asking “Where are the victory parades?” Now I have my answer. Happy Memorial Day.

By Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Twilight of the American Century. His previous book was America’s War for the Greater Middle East. Originally published at TomDispatch.

Earlier this month, I spent a day visiting Marseilles to videotape a documentary about recent American military history, specifically the ongoing wars that most of us prefer not to think about.

Lest there be any confusion, let me be more specific. I am not referring to Marseilles (mar-SAY), France, that nation’s largest port and second largest city with a population approaching 900,000. No, my destination was Marseilles (mar-SAYLZ), Illinois, a small prairie town with a population hovering around 5,000.

Our own lesser Marseilles nestles alongside the Illinois River, more or less equidistant between Chicago and Peoria, smack dab in the middle of flyover country. I have some personal familiarity with this part of America. More than half a century ago, the school I attended in nearby Peru used to play the Panthers of Marseilles High. Unfortunately, their school closed three decades ago.

Back then, the town had achieved minor distinction for manufacturing corrugated boxes for Nabisco. But that factory was shuttered in 2002 and only the abandoned building remains, its eight-story hulk still looming above Main Street.

Today, downtown Marseilles, running a few short blocks toward the river, consists of tired-looking commercial structures dating from early in the previous century. Many of the storefronts are empty. By all appearances, the rest may suffer a similar fate in the not-too-distant future. Although the U.S. economy has bounced back from the Great Recession, recovery bypassed Marseilles. Here, the good times ended long ago and never came back. The feel of the place is weary and forlorn. Hedge-fund managers keen to turn a quick profit should look elsewhere.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, this is Trump country. Marseilles is located in LaSalle County, which in 2016 voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a hefty 14% margin. It’s easy to imagine residents of Marseilles, which is more than 96% white, taking umbrage at Clinton’s disparaging reference to The Donald’s supporters as so many “deplorables.” They had reason to do so.

A Midwestern Memorial to America’s Wars in the Greater Middle East

Today, Marseilles retains one modest claim to fame. It’s the site of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial, dedicated in June 2004 and situated on an open plot of ground between the river and the old Nabisco plant. The memorial, created and supported by a conglomeration of civic-minded Illinois bikers, many of them Vietnam veterans, is the only one in the nation that commemorates those who have died during the course of the various campaigns, skirmishes, protracted wars, and nasty mishaps that have involved U.S. forces in various quarters of the Greater Middle East over the past several decades.

Think about it: Any American wanting to pay personal tribute to those who fought and died for our country in World War II or Korea or Vietnam knows where to go — to the Mall in Washington D.C., that long stretch of lawn and reflecting pools connecting the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Any American wanting to honor the sacrifice of those who fought and died in a series of more recent conflicts that have lasted longer than World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined must travel to a place where the nearest public transportation is a Greyhound bus station down the road in Ottawa and the top restaurant is Bobaluk’s Beef and Pizza. Nowhere else in this vast nation of ours has anyone invested the money and the effort to remember more than a generation’s worth of less-than-triumphant American war making. Marseilles has a lock on the franchise.

Critics might quibble with the aesthetics of the memorial, dismissing it as an unpretentious knock-off of the far more famous Vietnam Wall. Yet if the design doesn’t qualify as cutting edge, it is palpably honest and heartfelt. It consists chiefly of a series of polished granite panels listing the names of those killed during the various phases of this country’s “forever wars” going all the way back to the sailors gunned down in the June 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty.

Those panels now contain more than 8,000 names. Each June, in conjunction with the annual “Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run,” which ends at the memorial, more are added. Along with flags and plaques, there is also text affirming that all those commemorated there are heroes who died for freedom and will never be forgotten.

On that point, allow me to register my own quibble. Although my son’s name is halfway down near the left margin of Panel 5B, I find myself uneasy with any reference to American soldiers having died for freedom in the Greater Middle East. Our pronounced penchant for using that term in connection with virtually any American military action strikes me as a dodge. It serves as an excuse for not thinking too deeply about the commitments, policies, and decisions that led to all those names being etched in stone, with more to come next month and probably for many years thereafter.

In Ernest Hemingway’s famed novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms, his protagonist is “embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.” I feel something similar when it comes to the use of freedom in this context. Well, not embarrassed exactly, but deeply uncomfortable. Freedom, used in this fashion, conceals truth behind a veil of patriotic sentiment.

Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Candidates at the Wall

During the several hours I spent there, virtually no one else visited the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial. A single elderly couple stopped by briefly and that was that. If this was understandable, it was also telling. After all, Marseilles, Illinois, is an out-of-the-way, isolated little burg. Touristy it’s not. There’s no buzz and no vibe and it’s a long way from the places that set the tone in present-day America. To compare Marseilles with New York, Washington, Hollywood, Las Vegas, or Silicon Valley is like comparing a Dollar General with Saks Fifth Avenue. Marseilles has the former. The closest Saks outlet is about a two-hour drive to Chicago’s Loop.

On the other hand, when you think about it, Marseilles is exactly the right place to situate the nation’s only existing memorial to its Middle Eastern wars. Where better, after all, to commemorate conflicts that Americans would like to ignore or forget than in a hollowing-out Midwestern town they never knew existed in the first place?

So, with the campaign for the 2020 presidential election now heating up, allow me to offer a modest proposal of my own — one that might, briefly at least, make Marseilles a destination of sorts.

Just as there are all-but-mandatory venues in Iowa and New Hampshire where candidates are expected to appear, why not make Marseilles, Illinois, one as well. Let all of the candidates competing to oust Donald Trump from the White House (their ranks now approaching two dozen) schedule at least one campaign stop at the Middle East Conflicts Wall, press entourage suitably in tow.

Let them take a page from presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall and use the site as a backdrop to reflect on the historical significance of this particular place. They should explain in concrete terms what the conflicts memorialized there signify; describe their relationship to the post-Cold War narrative of America as the planet’s “indispensable nation” or “sole superpower”; assess the disastrous costs and consequences of those never-ending wars; fix accountability; lay out to the American people how to avoid repeating the mistakes made by previous administrations, including the present one that seems to be itching for yet another conflict in the Middle East; and help us understand how, under the guise of promoting liberty and democracy, Washington has sown chaos through much of the region.

And, just to make it interesting, bonus points for anyone who can get through their remarks without referring to “freedom” or “supreme sacrifice,” citing the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13 (“Greater love hath no man than this…”), or offering some fatuous reference to GIs as agents of the Lord called upon to smite evildoers. On the other hand, apt comparisons to Vietnam are not just permitted but encouraged.

I’m betting that the good bikers of Illinois who long ago served in Vietnam will happily provide a mic and a podium. If they won’t, I will.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Middle East, Politics on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. ambrit

    Perfect for a Memorial Day. Remember the good and the bad, the wins and the losses.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I couldn’t believe they stashed the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial out in the boonies (apologies, Marseilles residents) instead of on the National Mall. It’s almost as if our ruling class is incapable of self-reflection or accepting accountability for losing wars in any way.

      After all, the states that were once part of the Confederacy are full of memorials to the so-called “Lost Cause,” so why not honor the participants in the Lost Wars just as much as the participants in the Good and/or Winning Wars? (Then again, the “Lost Cause” turned into a pernicious and reactionary cult, so maybe that’s a bad analogy.)

      1. Larry

        It is not on a national scale, but at least locally around me in suburban Boston, MA, the loss of soldiers in foreign wars is always memorialized. This often occurs with names added to a new Iraq/Afghanistan plaque alongside the memorials for larger wars. See for an older example an article here:

        So you are correct Lambert that it is a shame that there is no national monument to the dead in our forever wars in the Middle East, but perhaps the local examples like the one highlighted in the article you shared will force the hands of the powers that be to recognize our losses on a broader stage.

      2. Edward

        Its a bit like the Korean war, except the politicians who supported that war/”police action” probably believed the arguments justifying the war.

          1. IdahoSpud

            I like this idea! Sort of like the Hollywood Walk of Stars for the common man. All you have to do is die a pointless death in a foreign land to get *your* name on the sidewalk!

    2. Whoamolly

      It’s even worse than–as Lambert said– “our ruling class is incapable of self-reflection or accepting accountability for losing wars in any way.”

      Why would our ruling class be interested in self reflection or accountability? They don’t know anyone who died in those wars. Their kids and their relatives will never have to go to war. Only the deplorables die.

      It’s not that they are incapable of self reflection or accountability. It’s that accountability is quaint and irrelevant.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Even if they knew someone, they wouldn’t care. It would merely be a feather under their cap. Thumbing their nose at the system is more important than keeping their kids out of harm’s way.

      2. Cathy Kelsey

        Excellent comments. Our so called elite couldn’t fight because he had bone spurs. What a disgrace.

  2. Edward

    Memorial Day should probably be renamed “Dewey was right, Wilson was wrong Day”.

    1. Edward

      I meant “Debs”, not “Dewey”, as in the socialist presidential candidate who was sent to jail for opposing WWI.

  3. Wukchumni

    All over NZ you’ll see WW1 memorials by the score–every little town has one, but not too many WW2 memorials and no Vietnam memorials.

    I’d like to see a similar progression here, as we get out of the war business.

    1. Conrad

      The WWI memorials had extra plaques added for the later wars. And there’s a few useful memorials around as well. My kids were all born in the local war memorial hospital for example. And the library has an pretty amazing WWIi mural.

  4. Carolinian

    In Ernest Hemingway’s famed novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms, his protagonist is “embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.” I feel something similar when it comes to the use of freedom in this context. Well, not embarrassed exactly, but deeply uncomfortable. Freedom, used in this fashion, conceals truth behind a veil of patriotic sentiment.

    I recently read a book about that Italian war against the Austrians. The Italian general eventually was shooting his own drafted soldiers for refusing to be cannon fodder in attack after fruitless attack–so much for “freedom.” All wars are fought for the benefit of the powerful with the foot soldiers, regardless of which side, being equally disposable. But at least now they get thanked for their service.

    1. Edward

      Most U.S. wars have been rotten. There is Panama, Grenada, the Philippines, Butler’s wars in Central America, Korea, Vietnam, the intervention in the Russian Civil War, and the Middle East wars. WWI was unnecessary. Do Americans want to celebrate these miserable undertakings? A better holiday would remind everyone how much trouble politicians create for us.

  5. ObjectiveFunction

    At a main intersection in leafy West Hartford, CT is a small green space encircled by a low, circular wall. The latter is inscribed with names of local sons (no daughters as yet, but at least one chattel slave) who have fallen in various wars. These include the Republic’s “brand name” wars, plus Gulf War and GWOT, but also the Spanish-American War and King Philip’s War (1675), which was a big deal in the Connecticut river valley back when.

    So a reminder that, just as in Rome, where the gates of Janus were shut only rarely over a thousand plus years, Americans have been falling in the service of the Republic (or the Crown, and also dying fighting against either) more or less continuously since the Roanoke colony.

    This includes Indian wars, insurrections, riots and banditry at home, and police actions overseas. Today, save in places like West Hartford with good records, most of these dead are known but to God.

    Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
    From dawn to setting sun;
    We have fought in every clime and place
    Where we could take a gun;
    In the snow of far-off Northern lands
    And in sunny tropic scenes…
    (Marine Hymn, verse 2.

  6. The Rev Kev

    This is par for the course. The Vietnam vets themselves had to fight to have their monument built in spite of resistance by the Feds. The Korean War monument was added as a guilty afterthought and not for nothing was it called the “Forgotten War”. It seems fitting that this memorial was built in flyover country as it is the people there who are bearing the burden of the Forever Wars. It was worse in Canada.
    A memorial to the 159 Canadian soldiers & civilians who died in Afghanistan was recently built which sounds good. But it “was dedicated in secret in a new Afghanistan Memorial Hall at military offices in Ottawa and placed behind a restricted security perimeter.” There were no family members of the dead present – they did not even know about it. You would have to get special permission to visit it because it is in a restricted zone. Unbelievable that-

  7. Chauncey Gardiner

    Moving and enlightening post. Yes, where are the other MENA War Memorials… photos of the coffins of the fallen and the honor guards at their funerals? The loss of the many sailors in the Israeli attack on the aptly named US naval vessel, the USS Liberty, together with the suppression of media coverage of that incident behind the veil of another contemporary war in S.E. Asia, was in hindsight a tell regarding subsequent actions.

    Mr. Bacevich, my deepest condolences to you on the loss of your son. Thank you for your voice. I share your discomfort with the terminology commonly applied in an effort to give meaning to the sacrifices of so many of our young people, together with your suggestions of more accurate language to describe the truth behind those losses and the adjective you chose to describe our “putative allies” in the region.

    A shout-out to the bikers behind the grass roots memorial in Marseilles, Illinois. Reminded me of their their past Memorial Day rallies at the Mall in DC. The hollowed-out economic situation described in this post likely provides an ongoing source of “volunteers” for these elite wars. Indeed, the the Middle East Conflict Wall in Marseilles, Illinois should be a campaign stop for those presidential candidates who oppose the perpetual wars of choice… (whose choice?)

  8. Stephen V.

    Perhaps a National Memorial would bring to light an open secret: M.E. wars are loses by design…no evidence but possibly Lambert’s Kaching and sekf-licking ice cream cone.


      The ME wars are obviously part of the poicy of causing chaos at the western end of the Silk Road, in order to extend the US’s command of sea bourne trade.

      The objective is Chaos. It is no by product or happenstance.

      Proof: Find a better strategic objective.

    2. Cal2


      Losers by design?

      In terms of “our” co-opted foreign policy, pre-training for America’s police forces, defending our allies, profits from defense stocks and the relatively low price you pay for motor fuel,
      Syraniraqlibyastan is a winner.

      I suggest that Major Tulsi Gabbard, a combat veteran, the most likely to forestall the forever war march and the highest quality, most likely vice-presidential choice for Bernie Sanders, visit Marseilles.

      Status Quo Joe wouldn’t dare show up, since he voted for the Iraq Disaster.

  9. G. Bacon

    There’s a helluva lot more dead Americans that have been killed fighting these endless ‘Wars for Wall Street and Israel’ than 8,000.

    The Bush-Cheney Junta changed the death rules to reduce the overall number of dead troops. Unless you died on the combat field, your death would not be counted.

    Die in the medevac helicopter on the war to the MASH unit? Die in the hospital or on the way home from the wounds you got on the field of combat? Forget it, those deaths don’t count.
    Amazing that Bush and Cheney, BOTH draft dodgers, would mutilate and dishonor our dead that way.

    1. Jonathan Holland Becnel


      Easter Weekend 2014. Fort Bliss/El Paso. 3 dead soldiers. 2 killed themselves. And 1 wrecked their 200mph motorcycle, drunk af.

      I knew more dead soldiers who died in the States than overseas…

  10. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    There is an Afghanistan / Iraq memorial in London to the 682 who died & I imagine many living & walking memorials among the reported number of 15,000 or so homeless ex-servicemen.

    The above reminds me of the treatment due to Irish Independence given to the Irish who fought in WW1, resulting in about 50,000 dead who up until I think relatively recently, were not remembered with memorials unless they were Protestants from Ulster. I also believe that those that survived got a frosty reception on returning home, as is perhaps best illustrated in the story of Tom Crean.

    Pre-war, he as a Royal Navy seaman was a member of Scott’s disastrous mission to reach the South pole, & while the war started was with Shackleton marooned on the ice sheet, took part in the incredible voyage to South Georgia, followed by the nightmare trek over the mountains & glacier to reach the whaling station.

    If anyone deserved to be treated as a hero, it was him, but on return it was all kept quiet & he settled on the Dingle Peninsular while buying a bar called the South Pole Inn which is still there, serving as a kind of memorial to the big fella. After he died interest started to grow & about 25 years ago a statue was erected not far from the bar.

    I think that there have been efforts to make amends over the past few years, as after all it wasn’t their fault as in some ways many it seems viewed it as another migration for work. It was supposed to be all over by Christmas & I don’t suppose that they might have gone if they knew they would be ordered to walk slowly over a large field into maxim machine gun crossfire. An Ulster regiment did once say ” screw this for a game of soldiers ” & decided to run across while screaming, resulting in them taking their objective. Unfortunately no-one else did & the effort was wasted, like so much of everything else.

    A great pity I suppose that they need to be memorialised at all, wherever they hail from.

  11. IdahoSpud

    Recommended Reading:

    “The Forever War”, a masterful work of science fiction by a disillusioned Vietnam veteran named Joe Haldeman. The book won Hugo and Nebula awards in the mid-70’s.

    Synopsis – it’s about a guy being drafted into a bullshit interstellar war, turned into a ruthless killing machine, being shredded and returned to combat, then returning to a civilian world he barely recognizes.

    A movie is in the works (Starring Tanning Chatum), and they will probably make it into a space marine show. Read the book.

    1. rowlf

      A great book but there are several versions with different editing and mid-stories. Very good physics and very little sci-fi magiking to make the story work.

      The Wiki lists the different editions.


  12. carl

    Bush and his minions ruined the word freedom, wielding it like a weapon against the many voices who protested the Iraq debacle. To this day, its use makes me cringe.

  13. Susan the other`

    Bacevich is a rare example of true mindfulness. Usually the objective of a memorial monument is to establish the end of something, tragic or otherwise. Only when it’s over are we allowed to contemplate what a waste it all was. But there in Marseilles Illinois stands a monument to mindfulness. Literally.

  14. CarlH

    Andrew Bacevich is a national hero. If only we had regiments and divisions full of ex-officers decrying our forever wars and engaging our national conscience (if we ever had one).

    1. Jonathan Holland Becnel

      Exactly. Also where are all the Enlisted like me and some of the other NC Vets? Why do Officers have the loudest voice? In Frankian terms, Officers are the 10%rs of the Military.

  15. Disturbed Voter

    There is an sequence of war memorials in a park in Farmington NM, that covers all conflicts up to the present day, one memorial for each period. Native Americans are quite patriotic in an ironic way. So post-Vietnam veterans aren’t completely forgotten. It is spotty. I know of a small town in Oklahoma, which only has one war memorial, to their first fatality, that happened at San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898. But nothing since.

  16. VietnamVet

    In my lifetime, the Korean War was deeply unpopular. WWII Vets called up again to fight another war. The Silent Revolt in Vietnam forced Dick Nixon to pull American troops out of the war. Why not now? The human costs of the Global War on Terror are staggering:

    Besides more than 8,000 American service members, over 7,800 private contractors have died. An unusually high percentage of young veterans have died since returning home, many as a result of drug overdoses, vehicle crashes, or suicide. Over 110,000 uniformed Coalition partners have died.

    There is no alternative. Both war parties, corporate media and the military industry complex support the forever wars. Costs are diffuse and hidden.

    This is about to change. Financial costs are rapidly escalating. In the fields around Marseilles Illinois, farmers have 11% of their corn seeded, behind an 82% five-year average. Climate Change is real. Barrack Obama restarted the Cold War with Russia. Donald Trump started a Trade War with China. Unless the USA backs down, war with Iran is imminent. World War III will end modern civilization. Even if the use of nuclear weapons is avoided, the blockade of Middle East oil will expose the true cost of fracked oil. Global trade will end. Empty Amazon Warehouses and Walmarts plus gasoline lines will assure that Donald Trump joins Harry Truman, LBJ and Jimmy Carter as a one term losers. War funding will end. The overseas wars will fade away. The alternative is extermination.

    1. Acacia

      Your mention of “the Silent Revolt” recalled an alt-media article I once read about the practice of “fragging” (i.e., killing unpopular COs with grenades tossed into their tents, generally at night), which led me to google which led me to John Pilger’s famous (but heretofore unknown to me) documentary film The Quiet Mutiny. Thanks for the tip!

  17. JBird4049

    Those panels now contain more than 8,000 names.

    Does this include the half of the American forces labeled as “private contractors” that was used in the same way as the “regular” military? Everything from security to truck driver was often done by either former military and wannabes to poor people from Nowheresville, USA. The advantages were that the official count of military personnel deployed was under counted because their deaths and injuries were not officially American, and because they were not officially on the millitary payroll, that also meant that the long term cost of paying for the injuries, disabilities, survivors’ benefits were not legally incurred by the government, and the federal money spent on them was given first to the “private” companies. A cost saving private-public partnership for waging wage.

    Disaster capitalism at it finest. Some days I despair for my country and start to hope for at least an existence of Hell for some if not Heaven for all.

    Sad that.

  18. ewmayer

    “…bonus points for anyone who can get through their remarks without referring to “freedom” or “supreme sacrifice,” citing the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13 (“Greater love hath no man than this…”)” — Not sure if Bacevich is taking issue with the sentiment of John 15:13 here, or with those who opportunistically invoke it to laud dying for The Homeland. Because I agree with John 15:13’s “… than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” But those psychopathic warmongering creeps in DC are not your friends, much as the opportunists try to imply the phrase extends to “one’s country”, “the mission of freedom”, what-have-you.

    The great British WW1 poet Wilfred Owen similarly took issue with the same “Old Lie”, in his Dulce et Decorum Est; a poem I regard as a necessary antidote to the more-famous WW1 warmongering paean In Flanders Fields.

Comments are closed.