America’s last “good war” – that is, a war the vast majority of the population could agree was worth fighting – formally ended on the second of September, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri. Since the Japanese surrender that day, the American people have become ever more reluctant to go to war, less and less likely to agree about when and where we ought to fight, and ever less unanimous in our collective determination to keep on fighting once we decide to start.
Conservatives tend to interpret this gradual march toward pacifism as a symptom of American decline, to attribute this dearth of fighting spirit to the enervating influence of a cowardly, degenerate liberalism. This interpretation of history attributes our lack of national unity on Vietnam, on Iraq, on Afghanistan and now on Libya to the weakening resolve and increasingly craven will of a people no longer prepared, as we once were, to suffer and die for freedom’s sake.
But I disagree. Our troops are no less brave, our national character no more degraded. We are certainly no less patriotic or caring for our soldiers than we used to be, even if we still do not care quite as much as we should; I have yet to hear about a returning soldier being spit upon or mocked, as Vietnam vets often were, and the national celebration of bin Laden’s death-by-SEAL was near-unanimous, even here at notoriously liberal Stanford.
No, the American people are unwilling to fight because we have been lied to too often, for too long and to the great and irreparable loss of too many. The nation has become skeptical about war because, like the proverbial townspeople guarding their sheep, we feel we can no longer trust the people calling us to action.
The lies started in Vietnam, when presidents, policymakers and pundits fed the American people a series of falsehoods that would eventually kill millions. They told us that the war would be easy; that, once we had started to fight, we were winning; and that if Vietnam fell to communism, the rest of Asia would follow.
The war was not easy; we did not win; and the rest of Asia did not turn red. But as the last American helicopter left South Vietnam, the lies began to take their toll, and disillusionment, discord and a distrust of government began to set in.
When the time came for war in Iraq, so also came more lies.
Here is former deputy ambassador to the U.N. Ken Adelman in February of 2002: “I believe that demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.”
Here is Dick Cheney on Aug. 26, 2002: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”
Here’s Cheney again, in March: “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators…I think it’ll go relatively quickly…Weeks rather than months.”
Here is George W. Bush, standing proudly in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003: “We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning…In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
The war was anything but a cakewalk; we never did find those weapons of mass destruction; weeks and months eventually turned to years; and “prevailed” seems rather a strong term to apply to a nation still plagued by sectarian violence and fear.
I would like to believe, as we all would, that war is never necessary. But there have been and will be again occasions in human history when Lady Justice must of necessity remove her blindfold, drop her scales and raise her sword. Military force can be employed in the service of good.
But the more the American people are sent to war under false pretenses, the more fear is instilled to coax our soldiers into fighting, the more soaring rhetoric and fine words are used to cover up the essential falsehoods at the heart of our ostensible mission – the less prepared, the weaker, the more cynical and the less certain the American people shall be when the time comes to fight the next truly necessary war. Like the villagers of the fable, we will greet the frantic calls for arms, troops, time and money with a measured indifference, secure in the knowledge that we have heard this all before and that this time, as always, it is all lies.
Tell Miles the truth anytime at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu. He’d love to hear it.