Veterans Day is being observed with several events today (Nov. 11) in the Puget Sound area. Those watching television will have an array of war and wartime films from which to choose.
Veterans Day, originally Armistice Day, was established on Nov. 11 because World War I, "the war to end all wars," ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. World War I, of course, was a wholly avoidable war between contending European and colonial powers, which, with its unfinished business, became an even more brutal World War II involving totalitarian ideologies and wholesale murder of non-combatants.
Since that time, war has been waged, somewhere in the world, almost continuously.
In recent years, in contrast to the post-Vietnam War period, our country has returned to its longtime dedication to honoring those who died, were wounded, or served in wartime. War by war, medical technology and treatment have improved so that, now, the maimed and broken survive as they previously would not have done.
Anyone who finds glory in war or is a war lover, such as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill or American World War II Gens. Curtis LeMay, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur, should not be lionized. Churchill, of course, was a resolute leader who rallied his country as a lesser leader might have been unable to do. But he also was the author in World War I of the disastrous Gallipoli expedition, which claimed without purpose so many Australian, New Zealander, and British lives. And, in World War II, he launched horrendous firebombing raids against German civilian targets out of blood lust and vengeance. LeMay and his assistant Robert McNamara presided over comparable U.S. Air Force firebombings of Japanese cities, and LeMay signed off on the dropping of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We particularly must beware those in high places whose first reach is for military solutions to longstanding international problems. A recent rereading of Max Hastings' 1987 history, The Korean War, reminds how MacArthur first disobeyed orders and drove American forces to the Chinese frontier — despite repeated warnings by the Chinese that they would fight if this happened — and then wanted to use nuclear weapons against Chinese targets. Yet, after President Truman fired him for insubordination, he still was hailed as a returning hero by millions of Americans. Even previously sensible World War II diplomats and defense officials advocated at various times strategies that involved bringing Chinese Nationalist troops into the Korean fighting or diversionary attacks on China away from the Korean theater, or even both.
President John F. Kennedy was praised for bringing "the best and the brightest" into his incoming administration in 1961. Alas, most of them were involved in economic and domestic policy. Defense Secretary McNamara, national security advisors McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk (one of the leftover hawks from the Korean era) proved to be educated but arrogant and wrong-headed, foolishly counseling Kennedy and, later, President Lyndon Johnson to become ever more deeply engaged in a Vietnam War where no American vital interests had ever been involved.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz similarly convinced President George W. Bush that Iraqi nuclear, chemical, and bacterial weapons programs were threatening and would be used against Iraq's neighbors, when, in fact, the programs had been discontinued several years before. It was an argument that persuaded not only Bush but many liberal Democratic senators, including John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.
Which brings us to now.
American casualties continue, although at a relatively low level compared to those in Korea or Vietnam, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. interventions in those countries were aimed, in particular, at building and stabilizing homegrown regimes that would not be hostile to American interests and would not harbor al-Qaida and other terrorist movements. Heading toward 2011, it is not at all clear that such stable regimes can take hold in Iraq and Afghanistan or that friendly regimes could be sustained more than briefly after pullouts by American and allied troops.
In the meantime, the main game has moved to Pakistan, a nuclear power where fundamentalists seek a takover and where al-Qaida now appears to be headquartered, and to Yemen and other countries where al-Qaida has established an important presence.
Do vital American intrerests still exist in Iraq and Afghanistan which would justify continuing expenditures of American lives and money there?
A rational assessment would say no. Yet, over the next year, debate will rage domestically over the issue. It is not at all certain which course President Obama's advisors will urge him to take. In his last review, in 2009, he essentially punted and played for time, agreeing to send more resources but not making an open-ended commitment.
We honor our veterans most greatly when we spare our young men and women from making sacrifices that earlier Americans made in conflicts that, often as not, did not justify their sacrifices. There is a question that should be posed to every American president and senior policymaker when war-and-peace decisions are being made: Is this conflict sufficiently important that you would send your own son or daughter to fight and possibly die in it?