Red State, Blue Collar
Striking Hot Iron

War And Remembrance

Reading Grim's post, I realize I was rude yesterday. I should have introduced myself. I do apologize. I shouldn't admit this, but I usually start writing at about 4 a.m. before my brain is truly awake.

My name is Cassandra and I spend most of my time over at Villainous Company.  I am a tech wench currently living in western Maryland with my husband (a United States Marine) and a small but feisty dachshund. Between growing up in the Navy and being married to a Marine for 26 years, I've never lived anywhere for more than 3 years but I consider the DC area my home.

Yesterday after finishing up over here I turned my attention to my own blog and saw an interesting piece in the Jewish World Review. It got me thinking about the whole issue of war crimes and abuses, historical revisionism, media bias in wartime reporting, and how our ignorance of history colors our interpretation of current events.


What will our children remember about this great enterprise in which we are currently engaged?  It is a fascinating study; that of war, and our remembrance of it. 

When we are in the midst of the fray, the fog of war obscures the field.  All too often we peer at the battlefield through glasses that narrow our vision to a single moment in time.  The smoke parts for an instant and we see Fallujah or Abu Ghuraib, the January elections, or a dying child cradled in the arms of an anguished soldier and that becomes, for us, the war.  Lurid pictures of hooded prisoners are splashed across our TV screens as Teddy Kennedy fulminates, "Saddam's torture chambers have reopened under new management ...- U.S. management".  Furious, I begin to scream at my TV set as though Kennedy could hear me and be ashamed of himself.  As though he had the capacity for shame.  Thank God my sons have grown up and moved away.  For a moment I see them rolling their eyes and saying, "There she goes again...". But even their remembered amusement at my expense doesn't stop me from asking, "Where is your sense of history? Your sense of perspective?"

It is at times like this that I wonder if the media aren't right after all. If Iraq isn't, in fact, another VietNam.  For we seem to have learned nothing. We seem to be repeating all the mistakes of that tragic conflict.  Not on the battlefield, mind you, but back here on the home front.

The proponents of perfectionism are at it again. If we cannot fight this war with all unspotted soldiers then the whole enterprise is tarnished beyond repair.  One mistake, one unanticipated setback, one more 'miserable failure' and we are ready to throw in the towel, the larger goals be damned.  Recently Henry Kissinger captured the difference between realists and idealists:

Realists judge policy by the ability to persevere in the pursuit of an objective in stages, each of which is imperfect by absolute standards but would not be attempted in the absence of absolute values.

It seems to be an awareness of (or more disturbingly, belief in) the absolute and eternal values we fight for that is lacking. And so the temporary setbacks, the moral aberrations that occur in time of war take on exaggerated significance, and the larger purpose recedes into the background.  But a look at history provides much-needed perspective on our current situation.  Jonathan Tobin asks, How Pure Must A Good Cause Be?

...not everything the United States and our gallant British allies did was without blemish either. The Allied strategic bombing campaign that wrecked havoc on Germany and Japan, took the lives of hundreds of thousands many of whom were probably innocent civilians. That the Americans and Brits eventually took up the same indiscriminate bombing tactics that they had originally denounced as evidence of Axis barbarity shows, in the historian's mind, that the Allies had thrown away any "moral restraint" in the pursuit of victory.

The excesses of such World War II revisionism should teach us that when we focus exclusively on those who suffered because of actions taken by those with the preponderance of right on their side, our view of the entire conflict can become hopelessly distorted.

World War II has oft been cited by anti-war activists as a case where the moral frontiers were well-defined; somehow unlike our current situation. Yet even the sainted FDR allowed internment camps and turned boatloads of Jewish refugees away from our shores.  Truman bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Somehow these inescapable facts get lost in the muddle.  If those Democratic heroes of yore made flawed decisions, how much more laudable in conduct has been the present war?  And why are we holding modern-day actors to such an unreal standard?

Counter-terrorist warfare, not unlike a lot of the combat in World War II, is messy and lots of people, not all of them bad guys, are inevitably going to get hurt. But the fact that both Israel and the United States go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties in a way that the Allies of 60 years ago would not have dreamed of doing hasn't stopped critics from making hyped up and false allegations of "war crimes."

War is organized barbarity, but some wars are just. The failure of Americans to live up at all times to what the Israelis call a concept of "purity of arms," doesn't undermine the morality of America's purpose today anymore than the firebombing of German cities did decades ago.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Victor Davis Hanson observes that the 20/20 hindsight of modern academics fails to take into account the hard choices that must be made in time of war:

Western elites — the beneficiaries of 60 years of peace and prosperity achieved by the sacrifices to defeat fascism and Communism — are unhappy in their late middle age, and show little gratitude for, or any idea about, what gave them such latitude. If they cannot find perfection in history, they see no good at all. So leisured American academics tell us that Iwo Jima was unnecessary, if not a racist campaign, that Hiroshima had little military value but instead was a strategic ploy to impress Stalin, and that the GI was racist, undisciplined, and reliant only on money and material largess.

There are two disturbing things about the current revisionism that transcend the human need to question orthodoxy. The first is the sheer hypocrisy of it all. Whatever mistakes and lapses committed by the Allies, they pale in comparison to the savagery of the Axis or the Communists. Post-facto critics never tell us what they would have done instead — lay off the German cities and send more ground troops into a pristine Third Reich; don’t bomb, but invade, an untouched Japan in 1946; keep out of WWII entirely; or in its aftermath invade the Soviet Union?

What this shows, I think, is that human nature hasn't changed. If historians cannot see the larger picture, why should we expect journalists to understand the lessons of history or pluck the glistening strand of gold from the dross?  Why, when they constantly compare Iraq to Viet Nam, can't they avoid the Viet Nam-era mistake of demonizing the footsoldier, as Bob Herbert does with depressing regularity? Why, recalling the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, do politicians call for us to withdraw our troops from Baghdad?  Have they so soon forgotten the carnage that followed that humiliating retreat? Do they feel no duty to the shades of those who died, that their lives would not be spent in vain?

Increasingly, we see ourselves as divorced from history, our debt to past generations forgotten.  And without the perspective that history provides, without the idea that there are eternal values worth fighting for, worth preserving, we are tyrannized by trivia: the weekly casualty report, the roll-call of combat dead, the annual budget report.  Looked at in isolation, these things loom artificially large.  Unlike our ancestors, we stand alone.  No parade of heroes from bygone ages hardens our resolve and straightens our shoulders with remembered pride.  We do not even know our own heroes.

And those three words: Duty Honor Country, which meant so much to our forebears, no longer inspire the vast majority of Americans.  Is it any wonder we find it difficult to keep our eyes on the distant goal?