Tuesday, November 11

"If in some smothering dreams you too could pace . . . "



It's one of those childhood memories which I don't know when it happened and I'm not 100-percent positive where it happened, but I think I was about eight or nine years old, not that long after we'd moved to Tennessee, and we were making one of our fairly regular weekend trips to Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee and the site of quite a lot of extremely well-preserved history. I think we were walking by some kind of memorial in front of the county courthouse that listed the names of people from Washington County who had died in various wars, and my dad pointed out that the soldiers who had died in World War I were listed under "The Great War." He asked me why I thought it said that instead of World War I, and when I told him I had no idea, he said, "Because they didn't think there could ever be another one. That's why they called it 'the war to end all wars' -- they thought that after that war, there could never be another one that would be that bad."

That memory, as hazy as it is, was the first thing that popped into my head while I was reading this post by Robert Farley and this post by Matthew Yglesias (both linked here) about how November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day but has come to mean something quite different under the "Veterans Day" moniker. According to Wikipedia, the name was changed in the mid-1950s to expand the holiday's remembrance to veterans of all wars, and while I obviously think that honoring our veterans is a right and necessary thing to do, I wonder if something else important wasn't lost in the change -- something that we might do well to reflect on now more than ever.

People in the late teens in 1920s referred to WWI as "the war to end all wars" not only because they thought there could never be another one that big, but also because they thought "The Great War" had been so definitive and cathartic that it reordered the world in such a way that we'd never need to have another war that big again. Well, obviously that wasn't how things played out, and as Yglesias alludes to, the second world war and the Cold War, among many other assorted conflicts and miseries, were more or less a direct result of that supposed new world order that was created in the wake of World War One.

That's about as much evidence as anyone could need that "war for peace" just doesn't work, and yet that's precisely the "argument" (if one can call it that) some people were making in the run-up to the second Iraq war, not to mention the argument that some still make in favor of military action against Iran. This idea that war can be a crucible out of which wonderful new democracies and alliances can be formed, it just doesn't hold any water, and yet some people still cling to the idea that America can reshape the world in our image and make it conform to our ideals if we're just willing to put enough military might behind it.

Look, I'm not saying that no war should ever be fought, or that walking around putting daisies in the barrels of soldiers' M-16s is the way to solve all the world's ills. Some wars need to be fought; the United States has both a need and a right to defend itself. But it's one thing to get involved in a war for the sake of protecting a nation's sovereignty or security; it's another thing entirely to start a war thinking it can change the world for the better. I can't think of a single instance in which that has ever worked. It all goes back to an excellent quote from Sadly, No! four years ago, and that I've invoked several times since then: War never doesn't hurt. You might or might not gain something from fighting in a war, but you are guaranteed to lose something -- and I continue to be confounded by the number of people who still seem so willing to take those odds.

War, by its very definition, doesn't preserve peace; the historical evidence shows us that neither does it leave peace in its wake, at least not a very enduring one. And while there's no sure-fire, airtight method for achieving peace, not starting wars is pretty much the most effective one anyone's ever been able to come up with. If you'll permit me to indulge my '80s-movie geekdom and involve a famous-to-the-point-of-cliché line from "WarGames," "The only winning move is not to play."

And I think that's worth keeping in mind today. While we're honoring the men and women who've had to make huge sacrifices for our country, let's not forget the circumstances and mistakes -- by other countries' governments as well as our own -- that forced them to make those sacrifices to begin with. And let's commit ourselves to not making those same mistakes again.

22 comments:

AlabamaDog said...

I read this posting and let it sit on me for a while. My first reaction was confusion. I have read this blog for at least six months and never posted, nor have I ever disagreed with what has been said. This just doesn't seem right. I feel that Veterans Day is not appropriate for this. I have servicemen in my family. I have been to the beaches at Normandy, seen the American cemetery there and wept. I felt anger at the enemies of America and proud that we are so resolved that they shall never be the instruments of our destruction. I leave you with a quote by Robert Heinlein: "Anyone who clings to the historically untrue-and thoroughly immoral-doctrine that violence never settles anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forgot this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms. "

Robert said...

You wrote: "This idea that war can be a crucible out of which wonderful new democracies and alliances can be formed, it just doesn't hold any water"

The people of Germany and Japan might disagree with you.

mykiec said...

To add to Robert's comment, that whole war and violence and fighting thing between us and England seemed to form a "wonderful new democracy" if history serves.

RedCrake said...

Kurt Vonnegut would agree with you Doug and said as much in his books (and remember he was a veteran of WWII himself).

I don't think that we shouldn't have a Veterans Day. Just that it shouldn't have taken the place of Armistice Day. WWI is for many people (who like myself have a high school level knowledge of American History due to choices to pursue other fields in college), forgotten or at least little understood conflict. Having a day dedicated to remember the first modern instance of the world at war with itself seems a worthy pursuit to me.

A Free Man said...

A brave and well written post, Doug. I think there's a difference between glorifying war and celebrating the people that were sent to fight and die.

Doug said...

I think the first three commenters may have misunderstood me. Some wars do have to be fought, World War II being a prime example, because we were attacked. But we didn't start that war, and we certainly didn't go into it with the primary objective of bringing democracy to Germany or Japan. We got into it because we'd been attacked and we had to protect ourselves and our allies.

In the case of Iraq, though, we started a war because we thought we could transform Iraq and make something miraculous out of it. (Well, some people thought that.) And that's my point -- it's futile to think of war as a means to an end, as a course of action to be chosen. The negatives are automatic, and the positives are not -- and the former almost always outweighs the latter.

alabamadog said...

Then why didn't you just so say?

aux arcs said...

I love your point about how we always lose SOMETHING during war. I also see your point about remembering our vets but realizing that war has both positive and negative consequences.

I sometimes feel that the Baby Boomers, in their constant rebellion against the Greatest Generation, overwhelmingly support war in the Middle East as a vehicle of atonement for Vietnam. They almost feel inferior to the previous generation. Let us hope that Gen X/Y does not make the same mistake 20-30 years down the road.

This is why I am excited about a Gen-X President (he is a 'tweener, but too young for BB) coming into office. If Clinton had gotten the nomination this entire campaign would have been the Wellesley protester v. the P.O.W. Don't believe me? Look at 2004: all people talked about is what Bush and Kerry did during Vietnam. It is time to move forward.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, it pays well to churn out the same diatribe every week.

michael said...

Well damn fine Doug in choosing your literary allusion. I'd rewrite the end of that poem (probably in bad Latin, but Fr. Tolbert SJ would forgive me after all my dad's Drambuie he imbibed):

Periculosa et stulta est
Pro ceterorum patria mori


when some asshole fake Texan lied his ass off.

Even when a real Texan made up the Gulf of Tonkin lie.

People serve their country, mostly honorably. They do not deserve to be sacrificed for idiotic philosophies by New Centurions that had other interests to pursue when it was their turn, cocaine or Halliburton profits or trashing the Constitution they swore to uphold.

michael said...

This wasn't Veteran's Day when it started out, it was Armistice Day.

michael said...

Republicans in general, but scoundrels looking for the last refuge in particular claim veterans as their heroes. The greatest generation got put-paid with virtually free tuition and guaranteed painless mortgages. They've voted consistently to deny the same to veterans of Viet Nam and adventurist wars instigated by the Bush family. Facts of the matter. Of course, those guys fought a war based on principal, not cooked up in boardrooms and the fevered minds of the American Enterprise Institute.

And dthey have the gall to fling accusations about lack of patriotism. They dishonor service to country. Kerry drove a Swiftboat and got shot and pulled a crewmate out of danger. Where was T. Boone while that was going on? Claiming Patriotism as a political axe to grind is pretty slippery when the Texas Guard OClub or your fifth deferment were your major concerns, but gotdamn you supported that war effort.

Jesus had a phrase for these people: whited sepulchers. It's a matter of faith for so-called Conservatives that vets coming home from Viet Nam were disrespected. They're right. But it wasn't hippie saliva, it was the back of the hand of the Nixon Administration. Shrubco has kept up this tradition. You patriots might not like that statement, but it's a fact.

Snead said...

Great post Doug. I enjoy, and appreciate, your comments.

Anonymous said...

War is a racket, or so said Major General Smedley Butler.

Anonymous said...

While (for independent reasons) I think that exiting the mess in Iraq would be a good idea as it was a stupid idea to start with, frankly I haven't heard a good moral argument against the war in Afghanistan. Unless you think the Taliban is so marvelous? Or is it that once the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, jihadist terror worldwide will drop. Just like last time around. Right?

I think the principle problem Doug, is tragically, you simply don't get it - you yearn for the "peace" of the 1990's...and you don't understand that our enemies were never, ever at peace with us...50 Swiss that awoke in Luxor, Egypt 11 years found that out the hard way and it was just one precursor of many attacks to come; Kenya, Tanzania, USS Cole, Mumbai, Beslan, Madrid, 9/11, 7/7, Bali, and many more...

I think even you accept that we do have enemies and hopefully, you don't feel that it's our fault that they hate us or that you want to find out how low to grovel and in which direction to kneel so they might stop hating you.

ACG said...

I don't remember him saying that the war in Afghanistan was wrong (correct me if I'm mischaracterizing your argument, Doug). I see that as another situation where, as in WWII (although on a different scale), we were attacked and had to respond in such a fashion that the aggressor had to be neutralized for our own safety. Nobody went into Afghanistan saying, "Well, we're going to crush their infrastructure into a fine powder and then build it back into a thriving democracy"; the idea was to get to bin Laden before he became determined to strike in the U.S. again.

And a great job we've done there, too. Instead of actually devoting our resources toward finding the people who actually attacked us, we got distracted by our brilliant plan to bomb democracy into Iraq. Which is what Doug has been saying (and again, Doug, correct me if I'm wrong): while better nations and stronger alliances have been known to rise from the ashes of war, starting a war with the sole intention of building a better nation and a stronger alliance just doesn't work. Because war never doesn't hurt, and you never know precisely how high the cost will be until it's all over.

michael said...

I'm pretty sure Milo Minderbinder said war's a racket. Assholes kill people because they can get even richer. Especially when they run Halliburton and appoint themselves Vice President.

The profiteering has been astronomical. Radical redistribution of wealth to bastards that control weapons, claim Jesus' imprimatur, and just don't really give a fuck who they kill.

michael said...

Ain't that family values.

Anonymous said...

Forgive my bad memory ACG, but I recall that the US and its allies under Bush/Blair-leadership etc. rationalized & justified the invasion of Iraq because of many issues including the alleged presence of WMD's, the alleged support by the Iraqi regime of various terrorist groups, Saddam's awful human rights record and defiance of various UN mandates and embargo's, and not soley based upon the need to spread to democracy.

Granted, the first two were tenuous at best, and were exposed as such but 'spreading democracy' wasn't the only reason for the invasion of Iraq. Admittedly, it's been about the only justification for invading Iraq that's had any substance that the Bush admin. has left. I also don't think as many would be arguing against Bush(or Doug's argument) if the Bush regime had actually been competent and put the correct resources and strategies into rebuilding Iraq from the start, not to mention avoiding Iraq and concentrating on Afghanistan which is still mired in the 7th century as far as women's rights are concerned.

Doug's objections seem to have less to do with the advocation of democracy and more to do with expansive imperialism and the wise use and application of military force, neither of which are necessary nor a sufficient precondition for democracy, even though it does help at times.

Bosnia was a correct use of military force, while Rwanda could have used more. India's entry into the 1971 Bangladesh war comes to mind to well. The problem is that building stable democracies takes time, sweat, toil, blood, a bit of luck, and money, all of which the Bush regime seemed to be woefully ignorant of.

Constrast that with the British Empire actually had a decent record of exporting democratic concepts and institutions, and laws even though the Brits themselves may not have lived up to them and had more selfish reasons to rule over places that are now democracies like India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the even the US.

Still, if Doug wants to use history to justify spurious arguments about contemporary affairs, as I just did, I suppose you have to cherry pick a few cases and ignore counter-examples, inconsistencies, contradictions etc.

It's all a bit more complex than Doug's post allows.

michael said...

Bush one bailed, Bush 2 was socoled up he had no clue where he was. Saxby? They wouldn't have taken the disgusting tub of guts.

What is wrong with you people? T. Boone you lying sack of shit. When does this crap end? Republican gutthumpers that never served making up crap about guys that served honorably. And American voters so GD stupid they buy this horseshit.

Jusst shut up you idiots. Your brand is lunch. Well, there's the Cheney combat record. Oops. You sniveling turds, this is infuriating. Kerry was a good comrade in combat. That's a fact Jack. W went AWOL. Deal with it. It doesn't matter anymore except that you slandered real people that really served their country and made some sort of twisted political hay out of it with nitwit voters. Fuck y'all. You're a disgrace.

G.O.B. said...

I think it's interesting to note that the Middle East as we know it today was created as a result of the Great War (i.e. Britain partitioning the Ottoman Empire after the Armistice). What effect that has on today's situation I couldn't even begin to guess, though. Just interesting to think about.

Also, I've noticed a marked increase in the quality of your +5's since your little hiatus. You are totally spot on with this week's analysis, and I think of you every time I bring up the ESPN homepage and curse that damn automatic video. Figured I'd just slip that in with this comment....

Anonymous said...

michael is 110% spot on. It was the perfect, saintly, Godlike WORLD WAR II greatest generation which sent the Vietnam generation to fight and die, deliberately tying their hands setting them up for failure in combat, then denying them every benefit to which they were entitled if they survived and returned. They portrayed them as nutcases and ticking bombs in popular media to turn the national sentiment against them and fully intended to continue persecuting them for the remainder of their lives. Vietnam veterans were vilified on an almost daily basis well into the 1990s until the bigotted World War IIers started to loosen their enfeebled hands from the reigns of American power. They would continue this persecution of Vietnam Veterans beyond the grave if it were, indeed, possible.