The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘Most of the Miseries of the World Were Caused by Wars . . .’

Posted on | November 30, 2010 | 18 Comments

” . . and, when the wars were over, no one ever knew what they were about.”
Ashley Wilkes, Gone With the Wind

Captain Wilkes might well have added that, the further wars recede from memory, the more difficult it becomes to explain them to people who only know what they were taught in school.

Why, for example, did “Remember the Maine!” serve as the spark for war fever against Spain in 1898? Or what inspired Argentina to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982?

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, every patriotic American knew that our troops were in Vietnam to fight the godless commies. But by the time I got to high school in the 1970s, we were evacuating troops from the roof of the embassy in Saigon because fighting the godless commies no longer seemed like a good idea to the folks in charge.

The experience of defeat in Vietnam was, and remains, a tender scar in the American soul, dividing us still.

Some people took from that experience the lesson that any foreign military operation by the United States was necessarily a bad thing, an imperialist quest for world domination undertaken on behalf of greedy corporations that stood to profit from supplying the war machine and exploiting the resources gained by conquest.

Others took from the Vietnam experience a quite different lesson, about how politicians attempting to micromanage military operations bring about disaster and about the folly of “limited” war undertaken without adequate appreciation of the enemy’s unwillingness to recognize such limits. And then there was the question of exactly when dissent in time of war crosses a line and becomes something far more sinister than mere dissent — but let’s not go there.

No, it’s best to fight one war at a time.

My experience of growing up during the Vietnam war, and seeing how it has been variously interpreted in the years since, instilled in me a deep skepticism about simplistic, politicized explanations for war.

Even World War II,  in which my own father was wounded within an inch of his life while fighting the Nazis, has been subjected to revisionism and critical scrutiny that somewhat debunks the gauzy idealism that has surrounded “The Last Good War.” And this skepticism about viewing war through a political prism was only increased by watching how, in 1990-91, the anti-war crowd leaped to the conclusion that the U.S. military response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait — Operation Desert Shield, which became Desert Storm — was sure to be an endless bloody quagmire.

Fortunately, that war reached a quick and successful conclusion before the advocates of “peace” could do much more than make complete fools of themselves. But by the time the hawks began beating the war-drums in 2002, demanding the invasion and conquest of Iraq, the first Gulf War had been misinterpreted by many as proof that all future U.S. wars would be quick and successful — much to the subsequent chagrin of “Cakewalk Ken” Adelman and his friends.

As I say, however, it’s best to fight one war at a time and I’ve no more interest in arguing about Iraq than I have in arguing about Vietnam. My point is that every U.S. war in my lifetime has been subjected to endless arguments like this, the sturdy facts obscured by partisan politics and opinions having nothing to do with actual military operations.

This is all by way of explaining why I get so weary of the tendentiousness with which some people approach the study of the War Between the States. The New York Times sent a reporter to Atlanta to stir up trouble in this regard:

ATLANTA — The Civil War, the most wrenching and bloody episode in American history, may not seem like much of a cause for celebration, especially in the South.
And yet, as the 150th anniversary of the four-year conflict gets under way, some groups in the old Confederacy are planning at least a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession, when 11 states declared their sovereignty under a banner of states’ rights and broke from the union.
The events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities. A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. . . .

You can read the whole thing, if you wish, but let’s just say that no decent Southern gentleman would accept an invitation to discuss the War if he knew that Mark Potok would be invited to the discussion.

Might as well discuss sexual morality with Andrew Sullivan, or discuss democracy with Kim Jong Il.

Perhaps I’ll have more to say later, or perhaps not. There are enough idiots in the world to argue with, and enough topics on which such idiots claim expertise, without arguing with the New York Times about the War — or, as refined Southerners once called it, the Late Unpleasantness.


Comments are closed.