Through the Lens of History

Lately, one of my themes on this blog has been to shed light on what I believe to be a breathtaking lack of perspective on the part of most who believe we ought not be in Iraq, or, that we are making a mess of it and such is a shortcoming of president Bush. I say "breathtaking" for a number of reasons. First, their historical references never go farther back than Vietnam. Second, their references are either non-sequitur, or they get any relevant Vietnam parallels all wrong, typically.

The fundamental reason things went wrong in Vietnam is that most Americans lost the will to see the job through. America lost the will mostly because of the political sabotage undertaken by the communist-sympathizing left and their hordes of ignorant hippies. Now this band of "luminaries" has the ignominious distinction of serving as the forefathers of today’s anti-war hysteria. And they are busy trying to fulfill their own prophesy: that Iraq will be a failure. If they can succeed in driving American public support down far enough, Iraq will become a failure. Observe what an ugly thing, the desire and drive for political power at any cost–even at the expense of American pride and the many American and Iraqi lives that paid for that pride.

The reason Bush is so despised by the left is that because thus far, he has done a remarkable job politically in maintaining that critical public support for the war, without which we would already be in withdrawal. The left is incensed that a cowboy from Texas can outmaneuver them in this "most delicate" political atmosphere.

In this, as in many things of a geopolitical nature, history provides no shortage of valuable and insightful lessons. But who pays attention to history anymore? There are two popular slogans that pertain to history, one which I believe silly and untrue, and the other that’s quite accurate. "Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." Fatalist rubbish that treats humans as robots reacting to the "stimuli" of events in exactly the same way each time unless reprogrammed. "There’s nothing new under the sun." Now this rings true. We can indeed learn from history and glean insights, so let’s go beyond the political failure of Vietnam, to an earlier time.

Victor Davis Hanson has done it again with an article so wide in scope that it should make many anti-war lefties turn red faced. The article is Triangulating the War, and I encourage all to take the 10 – 15 minutes necessary to read it in full. The section under the sub-header Heads You Lose, Tails We Win could easily serve as the entire article itself. The concluding paragraph:

There are many constants in all this pessimistic confusion — beside the fact that we are becoming a near hysterical society. First, our miraculous efforts in toppling the Taliban and Saddam have apparently made us forget war is always a litany of mistakes. No conflict is conducted according to either antebellum planning or can proceed with the benefit of hindsight. Iraq was not Yemen or Qatar, but rather the most wicked regime in the world, in the heart of the Arab world, full of oil, terrorists, and mass graves. There were no helpful neighbors to keep a lid on their own infiltrating jihadists. Instead we had to go into the heart of the caliphate, take out a mass murderer, restore civil society after 30 years of brutality, and ward off Sunni and Baathist fomenters in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria — all the while keeping out Iranian-Shiite agents bent on stopping democracy. The wonder is not that there is violence and gloom in Iraq, but that less than two years after Saddam was removed, elections are still on track.

The section on WWII is what I’ve been waiting to get at, however, and I include it below. My guess is that virtually all of this will be news to your run-of-the-mill, anti-war American. An unfortunate by-product of our ultimate success in WWII, against long odds, is that the war has been romanticized to insane heights. While there is certainly a place for such nostalgic pride in America, it should not in any way be confused with the horror and litany of mistakes and disasters that made up much of the war effort on the whole.

Second, our very success creates ever increasing expectations of perfection for a postmodern America used to instant gratification. We now look back in awe at World War II, the model of military success, in which within four years an unprepared United States won two global wars, at sea, on the ground, and in the air, in three continents against Japan, Italy, and Germany, and supplied both England and the Soviet Union. But our forefathers experienced disaster after disaster in a tale of heartbreak, almost as inglorious as the Korean mess or Vietnam tragedy. And they did things to win we perhaps claim we would now not: Shoot German prisoners in the Bulge, firebomb Axis cities, drop the bomb — almost anything to stop fascists from slaughtering even more millions of innocents.

Our armored vehicles were deathtraps and only improved days before the surrender. American torpedoes were often duds. Unescorted daylight bombing proved a disaster, but continued. Amphibious assaults like Anzio and Tarawa were bloodbaths and emblematic of terrible planning and command. The recapture of Manila was clumsy and far too costly. Okinawa was the worst of all operations, and yet was begun just over fourth months before the surrender — without any planning for Kamikazes who were shortly to kill 5,000 American sailors. Patton, the one general that could have ended the western war in 1944, was relieved and then subordinated to an auxiliary position with near fatal results for the drive from Normandy; mediocrities like Mark Clark flourished and were promoted. Admiral King resisted the life-saving convoy system and unnecessarily sacrificed merchant ships; while Bull Halsey almost lost his unprepared fleet to a storm.

The war’s aftermath seemed worse, to be overseen by an untried president who was considered an abject lightweight. Not-so-quite collateral damage had ruined entire cities. Europe nearly starved in winter 1945-6. Millions were on the road in mass exoduses. After spending billions to destroy Nazi Germany we had to spend billions more to rebuild it — and repair the devastation it had wrought on its neighbors. Our so-called partisan friends in Yugoslavia and Greece turned out to be hard-core Communist killers. Soon enough we learned that the guerrillas in the mountains of Europe whom we had idolized, in fact, fought as much for Communism as against fascism — but never for democracy.

But at least there was clear-cut strategic success? Oh? The war started to keep Eastern Europe free of Nazis and ended up ensuring that it was enslaved by Stalinists. Poland was neither free in 1940 nor in 1946. By early 1946 we were already considering putting former Luftwaffe pilots in American jets — improved with ample borrowing from Nazi technology — to protect Europe from the Red Army carried westward on GM trucks. We put Nazis on trials for war crimes even as we invited their scientists to our shores to match their counterparts in the Soviet Union who were building even more lethal weapons to destroy us. Our utopian idea of a global U.N. immediately deteriorated into a mess — decades of vetoes in the Security Council by Stalinists and Maoists, even as former colonial states turned thugocracies in the General Assembly ganged up on Israel and the survivors of the Holocaust.

After Americans had liberated France and restored his country, General de Gaulle created the myth of the French resistance and immediately triangulated with our enemies to reforge some pathetic sort of French grandeur. An exhausted England turned over to us a collapsing empire, with the warning that it might all turn Communist. Tired of the war and postbellum costs, Americans suddenly were asked to wage a new Cold War to keep a shrinking West and its allies free. The Department of War turned into the Department of Defense, along with weird new things like the U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, Food for Peace, Alliance for Progress, Voice of America, and thousands of other costly entities never dreamed of just a few years earlier.

And yet our greatest generation thought by and large they had done pretty well. We in contrast would have given up in despair in 1942, New York Times columnists and NPR pundits pontificating "I told you so" as if we were better off sitting out the war all along.

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