Memorial Day: What’s Truly At Stake

by on May 26th, 2008

As is fitting the occasion, today we can read about distant and contemporary heroes, people whose sacrifices range from the common to the extraordinary, in battles of at once ferocious and horrifying. Beyond the heroic actions of our military personnel are the broader themes that infuse Memorial Day, and those include freedom and its corollary, responsibility.

However, when we venture into those areas we inevitably find ourselves outside the political Demilitarized Zone of individual heroism, a place where we can all agree that individuals who have served, been wounded or killed, deserve our deepest respect and thanks. That’s because we often don’t find universal agreement on whether a given war was justified, at least until it’s over and the implications of the sacrifice are more apparent.

What’s unique about our current war in Iraq is that it’s imbued with the wholly misinformed notion that it was the result of neoconservatives who lied us into a war not worth fighting. Let’s begin with the irrefutable premise that every war, from the Spanish-American War, which was arguably the most popular war in our history, to World War II, was rife with contention about its merits, and voices across the political spectrum made the case that each of them wasn’t in America’s best interest. However, once they were joined, the vast majority stood behind the mission, which raises the issue of those who support our troops in Iraq, but not the mission (i.e., winning)–more on that anon.

We can perform the cultural forensics on the ramp-up to the war, but suffice it to say that by broad margins in Congress and across America, this was deemed a necessary war. Beyond the absence of WMD–which intelligence reports indicate Hussein could have easily reacquired–all that changed is it’s duration and the special challenges we’ve been obliged to face, which is to say it’s no different than most wars we’ve fought.

Which brings us to the core of our civic conundrum: Given the obvious incapacity for Americans to see through the short-term pain of war in Iraq to the larger goal of an Iraq with a fledgling democratic structure and the stability it would bring to the region, can we contemplate any war they could support? Curiously, when former President Clinton launched his war in Bosnia–which was not approved by the United Nations–the left sat silently by as the bombs dropped, and after more than decade, we’re still there.

There’s something decidedly unflattering about those who say they support the troops but not the war, which is akin to supporting fire-fighters but not their goal of suppressing fires. It’s an intellectually antiseptic way of skirting the issue of whether winning–a word you’ll rarely hear from our brethren on the left–is as important as merely caring about our troops. When they tell us they want the U.S. to leave Iraq “responsibly” they never discuss the post-withdrawal environment and the vital obligations Americas has once it’s committed itself to war.

For two distinctly different views of patriotism–the civic muscle that undergirds sacrifice in war–we turn first to E.J. Dionne who begins with some lucid counseling by stating that “progressives should not assume that patriotism is somehow a bad thing, akin to jingoism or nationalism.” If that seems like the low-hanging fruit of the larger argument, it’s because, as Dionne knows, the left begins with a deficit in the realm of patriotism, and the lapel flag pin issue is just a symptom of it.

Behind that manifestation is the left’s reticence to project American power–read, values–because it’s never been completely comfortable with them, in large part because liberals habitually highlight our foibles and missteps, domestically and internationally. That’s not a strong foundation from which to argue that intervening in Europe or Korea or Iraq for that matter, are worth our blood and treasure.

That’s why the central line of Dionne’s argument focuses on Senator Obama’s call for national service, a laudable if somewhat anemic characterization of raw patriotism. It conveniently avoids those unpleasant decisions that accompany profound differences among nations, the kind that can lead to war. But agnosticism in the realm of foreign affairs is what led to the slaughter of 40 million people in World War II, which, historians agree, might have been avoided by stopping Hitler as he moved his army into the Rhineland in March of 1936. Indeed, it’s that banal shibboleth about war being a last resort that has needlessly caused the death of millions.

For contrast, we turn to Arnold Garcia, writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, who describes the 1944 battle of Rapido in Italy, which, he correctly concludes was a just cause, despite the horrible losses. There are countless other examples of engagements that detractors might have justifiably considered unworthy of our efforts, from Tarawa in the Pacific to the war in Iraq.

But despite misgivings, whether in advance of a war, or in the case of Iraq, throughout the war, there’s both an intellectual dishonesty and a conspicuous absence of honor in arguments that call for a premature withdrawal. Not merely because it would sully the sacrifice of those who died for the cause, and not only because it would leave a strategic vacuum which Iran would instantly fill, but because America’s reputation as the world’s unequivocal champion of freedom is at stake.

You won’t hear that asserted by the likes of Dionne, or Obama for that matter, because it’s been written out of their political script, which was authored by the hard left. That’s truly unfortunate because the world is approaching a kind of geopolitical tipping point, where the arguments in favor of autocracy–viz., China and Russia–are again being joined. It’s against that backdrop that America’s values of freedom, underwritten by the threat of force, must play a strong role, because so much is at stake.

Mella is editor of

Philip Mella