Monday, May 28, 2007

Dulce et Decorum Est

"Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes." Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

One of the gravest responsibilities of any President of the United States is his responsibility to act as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. No decision of policy, no attempt to set the course of the nation's domestic affairs can compare in sheer gravity to the duty of the President to preserve and protect the nation; no decision he can make in these realms shares the import of that which places the men and women in our military in harm's way.

It is clear that this is a decision that should never be made without the most serious of purposes, to avert the gravest of harms, and in the face of the most terrible of necessities. The writings of past wartime Presidents shows us how weighty the decision to go to war always was, how much they struggled with it, how sincerely they prayed and wept over it, how they were either vindicated or indited by history because of it.

At present, America continues to fight a war in Iraq. This war has already lasted slightly longer than the American Civil War; and though we may in some sense be thankful that the casualties of this war are much less than they were of that former one, it is small comfort. In the Civil War, it may be argued that President Lincoln had little choice but to engage the South in battle to preserve the Union; at the very least, it must be recognized that the war began on our own soil and clearly involved American interests. The same cannot be said of the Iraq war; Iraq was not directly responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack on America, and if it was truly justified for us to go to war with any nation that might have been giving aid and comfort to terrorist organizations, then why did we not expand our efforts, and go to war with other putative terror-sponsoring states, such as Saudi Arabia and Syria?

Even if America was justified in seeking to remove Saddam Hussein from power, it seems clear that little planning was made for the chaos that would result from the power vacuum we were about to create. As the Lincoln quote above says, we didn't expect that the cause of the conflict would cease before the conflict itself would cease--but Saddam Hussein is dead, and we are still in Baghdad. Moreover, it looks increasingly as though we will either remain there for the foreseeable future, or leave, and let the fledgling democracy we've tried to create falter and drown in the bloody waters of internecine conflict that are pretty much the status quo of that region of the world.

It would seem that unlike other (though not necessarily all) wartime Presidents, our current President allowed himself to be persuaded to a course of action by people who would directly benefit from that action. Wars may be fought for many good or noble reasons, but the protection of mere economic interests doesn't make the list. I would rather see an America forced to cut its dependence on foreign oil with whatever sacrifices that would require, right down to the personal level, than an America willing to shed a single drop of a soldier's blood in exchange for an ocean of that oil.

As U.S. military deaths in Iraq approach 3,500, it is time to reflect. Is the war in Iraq worth the cost it is exacting? Will the grieving family of a single one of those departed soldiers whom we remember today in company with the heroes of the past truly be able to whisper to themselves, for comfort, "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country,"?


Michelle said...

The question remains: who in the world will enforce international peace? The U.N. refused to do anything other than wring its hands at Iraq's repeated violations of international law and the terms of peace mandated by the war from 1991 when the U.S. had to step in and save Kuwait from their invasion. Appeasement did not work with Adolf only made him bolder. The violation of Kuwait's sovereignty was a clear reason to get involved...Iraq lost that war and was required to atone. Iraq refused to change its evil ways. What do we do?

I do not want my husband to die. But I recognize that my personal freedom - my ability to move about the country with little or no worry about my personal safety - is rare in most countries of this world. I do not want to wait until the war rages in my own town before I act to stop the atrocities. If acts of terrorism and repression exist anywhere in the world, it is our global responsibility to try to make chages for the better. Obviously, though, it is imprudent to wage all wars at once. Some wars against injustice can be fought diplomatically; other wars require use of force. Both forms require patience.

To lose courage and run, to doom the entire country to internal strife and failure - that then is to have these soldiers die in vain, as in Vietnam which remains a sad, impoverished and oppressed country. We would not have gotten past D-Day if we had felt that 3500 dead was too much. Each life is sadly mourned - let not the sheer numbers make us numb to their individual souls. But let us not grow faint at the sight of their blood either.

At our military chapel, the retired military priest drew connections between those who died for freedom and those who died for the faith - a fitting homily for Pentecost Sunday and Memorial Day weekend. Some things are worth dying for. It is not oil, it is not money, it is not power for which our soldiers bear arms in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places in the world (we remain in Korea nearly 60 years later). It is for justice (for all), freedom (for all), peace (for all).

Red Cardigan said...

Michelle, thank you for this thoughtful comment. I'm sorry I wasn't able to respond earlier.

First of all, please thank your DH for his service in the armed forces, on behalf of the 'Cardigan' family. My husband served in the Air Force long ago, and so did both his parents.

Your question is a difficult one, but I think that people of good will can disagree about the role of the U.S. military in these situations. I must admit that when I first heard that the Pope was urging us not to go to war, and then condemning the actions we took once the war had commenced, that I had mixed feelings, in part because of some of the things you'd expressed. After all, who would make Iraq behave if we didn't? And wouldn't we just make it easier for terrorists if we didn't get in there and do something?

I've come, sadly and reluctantly, to the belief that the Holy Father was right on this one. The war has torn Iraq apart, and unless we're willing to stay there and run the country for a couple of decades, the divisions among the people of Iraq will explode into civil war as soon as we decrease our presence.

And we will decrease our presence, sooner or later. The American people don't appear to have the stomach for extended guerrilla-style conflict, as we learned in Vietnam; how much stomach will we have for a fight against an enemy that buries bombs in the roads and then disappears?

And what happens if some other international conflict, perhaps involving Iran or Syria, blows up while we're committed in Iraq? Do we stretch our already thin forces even further? Do we abandon Baghdad to take on Damascus or Tehran? If it really is America's job to be the world's policeman, at what point does that job become impossible?

It doesn't seem as though there's a good resolution possible in Iraq anymore. If our objective was to remove Hussein, well, that's done. So at what point do we say, enough? Do we keep hoping to erect a Jeffersonian democracy in a country that shows little to no capacity for self-rule?

These are difficult questions, and they must be the most difficult for active duty military members and their families. I support our troops, wherever they are stationed, and in whatever battles they must engage; but that doesn't stop me from having serious reservations about our role in this war.