There’s nothing I can say about the parade of still pictures, the faces on the television – except, perhaps, that they all seemed to share a fierce pride in their eyes, photographed for the first time in their Marine Dress Blues. Surely their families are proud of them. I certainly am, and I never got to know any of them. And now, I never will. Names scroll in little yellow letters across the bottom of our glowing screens: Sergeants, and Captains, and Privates.
These men have died for us. More will follow. We asked them to go, and they went. All across this nation — here and there, sparkling across the map like fireflies on a summer night – sedans are slowly rolling to a stop outside of small, modest homes. Men in uniform emerge, straighten their tunics, and walk slowly up driveways. Doorbells are rung.
Maybe here and there smiles will evaporate in shock and surprise as doors are opened, but more likely the face will be one full of stunned realization that the very worst thing in the whole world has happened. And children will be sent to their rooms. And the men will speak in somber, respectful tones. And sons and mothers and fathers and wives will be told that the one thing they love more than anything in this world has been taken away from them, that their sons and daughters will not be coming home, that their fathers or mothers have gone away and will never come back, not ever. Why do we do this? What could possibly be worth this? The war is an abject and utter failure. What everyone thought would be a quick, decisive victory has turned into an embarrassing series of reversals.
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The enemy, — a ragtag, badly-fed collection of hotheads and fanatics – has failed to be shocked and awed by the most magnificent military machine ever fielded. Their dogged resistance has shown us the futility of the idea that a nation of millions could ever be subjugated and administered, no matter what obscene price we are willing to pay in blood and money. The President of the United States is a buffoon, an idiot, a man barely able to speak the English language. His vice president is a little-seen, widely despised enigma and his chief military advisor a wild-eyed warmonger. Only his Secretary of State offers any hope of redemption, for he at least is a reasonable, well-educated man, a man most thought would have made a far, far better choice for Chief Executive. We must face the fact that we had no business forcing this unjust war on a people who simply want to be left alone.
It has damaged our international relationships beyond any measure, and has proven to be illegal, immoral and nothing less than a monumental mistake that will take generations to rectify. We can never hope to subdue and remake an entire nation of millions. All we will do is alienate them further. So we must bring this war to an immediate end, and make a solemn promise to history that we will never launch another war of aggression and preemption again, so help us God. This was the condensed opinion of the Copperhead press. The time was the summer of 1864.
Everyone thought the Rebels would be whipped at Bull Run, and that the Confederacy would collapse within a few days or hours of such a defeat. No one expected the common Southern man to fight so tenaciously, a man who owned no slaves and who in fact despised the rich fire-eaters who had taken them to war. Lincoln was widely considered a bumpkin, a gorilla, an uncouth backwoods hick who by some miracle of political compromise had made it to the White House. Secretary of War Stanton had assumed near-dictatorial powers and was also roundly despised. Only Secretary of State William Seward, a well-spoken, intelligent Easterner and a former Presidential candidate, seemed fit to hold office. After three interminable and unbelievably bloody years of conflict, many in the Northern press had long ago become convinced that there was no hope of winning the war, and far less of winning the peace that followed.
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After nearly forty months of battle and maneuver, after seeing endless hopes dashed in spectacular failure, after watching the magnificent Army of the Potomac again and again whipped and humiliated by a far smaller, under-fed, under-equipped force, the New York newspapers and many, many others were calling for an immediate end to this parade of failures. It took them forty months and hundreds of thousands killed to reach that point. Today, many news outlets have reached a similar conclusion after ten days and less than fifty combat fatalities. Ahhh. Progress. A few years ago, I made up my mind to visit for the first time many of the places I had come to know so well.
So before my 1996 Christmas trip to visit my father at his house adjacent to Valley Forge – another place rich with ghosts and history — I made a tour of as many Civil War battlefields as I could, driving northward through Virginia, seeking out the unremarkable hills and fields that I had followed with Shelby Foote through more than 2, 300 pages of his magnificent Civil War trilogy. It was bitterly cold the day I walked up the steep embankment where Hood’s Texans broke the Union line at Gaines Mill, and then I thrust my hands into my pockets and walked a few hundred yards and three blood-soaked years away to the lines at Cold Harbor, where the remains of the opposing trenches lay almost comically close. As I walked from the Confederate to the Union positions, the green pine forest was as peaceful and serene a place as is possible to imagine. And there I stopped, halfway between the lines, listening to the winter breeze swaying the trees, and looked around – at nothing.
Just a glade like any other in the beautiful back woods of Virginia. And yet here lay seven thousand men – here, in this little clearing. Seven thousand men. The Union blue lay so thick on this ground that you could walk from the Confederate lines to the Union ones on the backs of the dead, your feet never touching the grass.
You can see them, you know. Not that I believe in ghosts, or the occult. But when you stand on a field like that, in a place like that, with a name like that – Cold Harbor – you feel it. You feel the reality of it. This happened, and it happened right here.
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The history of that ground rises like a vapor and grabs your imagination by the neck, and forces you to see what happened there. The next day, I stood in a tiny rut, a small bend in a shallow, grassy berm, where for sixteen hours men cursed and killed each other at point-blank range, where musket balls flew so furiously that they cut down a foot-thick oak tree. Here, at the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania, the fighting was hand-to-hand from the break of dawn to almost midnight; uninterrupted horror that to this day remains for me the most appalling single acre in human history. There, on that unassuming, peaceful, empty field – it might as well have been the back of a high school — men had become so agitated that they climbed the muddy, blood-slick trenches, clawed their way to the parapets to shoot at a man a foot or two away, then hurled their bayoneted muskets like a javelin into the crowd before being shot down and replaced by other half-mad, raving automatons. What trick of time and memory, what charm or spell does history possess, that can turn such fields of unremitting violence and terror into places of religious awe and wonder? Why are some people called to these places, in America and around the world, to stand in wonder – not only at the brutality of war, but at the transcendental, ennobling power of them? How does slaughter and death turn into nobility and sacrifice? Why can we recite the names of places like Roanoke, Harrisburg, Phoenixville, Marseille, Kiev, Vanuatu and Johannesburg with no more passion than we muster while reading the ingredients on the back of a cereal box, while names like Antietam, Gettysburg, Valley Forge, Verdun, Stalingrad, Guadalcanal and Rorke’s Drift thunder through time as if the earth itself were being rung like a bell? Today we are at War. The future is dark and filled with uncertainties.
We are at a time of great peril and momentous decisions are being made by the hour. We know history is being written before our very eyes. No one knows how things will turn out – only history will know. We can, however, step back from 24/7 embedded coverage. We can in fact gain what is most missing in these anxious days — perspective.
Like all worthwhile journeys, this will take some time. First, we need to go to the one place that could perhaps best make sense of all this blood and terror and waste and pain. I found it, finally. As with all the other places I had visited, I had great difficulty realizing where I was because the reality was so much smaller than what I had imagined. Off in the distance stood Seminary Ridge, where Pickett and Armistead and the rest would march into history – but that was not what I wanted to see.
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I had made my way over the boulders of The Devils’ Den, caught my breath when I found myself in a small alcove where a dead Confederate had lain in one of the most famous photos from the war. And finally, I found the marker I was looking for, and walked – such a small distance – down and then up again that little stretch of hill. This was it, all right. This was the place. I was standing on the exact spot where the very existence of the United States of America, where all of our lives and our history, all our subsequent glory and tragedy, turned on what lay in the heart of an unassuming professor of Rhetoric from a small college in Brunswick, Maine. One of the most subtle distortions caused by history’s telephoto lens is the sense of predetermination.
We know the Allies won World War II, as decisively as any conflict in history. But in London, 1940, such an outcome would have seemed unthinkably optimistic. The fact is, it was a very, very near thing. We look back on the Union victory in the Civil War with the same sense of it being a foregone conclusion.
But it was not. By the second day of July in 1863, the mighty armies of the Union had been beaten in every major battle except Antietam – and that had been not much better than a tie. And they had not just been defeated. They had been thrashed.
Whipped. Sent reeling again and again and again by a half-starved collection of scarecrows in homemade uniforms. None of this was lost on the Union men that morning, not the least on that Professor of Rhetoric from Bowdoin College. He had seen, first hand, the disasters at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. For those men, as for us today, the future was dark and unknowable. Yet history can often show where we are going by showing where we have been, in the same way that a ship’s wake extending to the Southern horizon is a sure sign of a Northward course.
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And that course, for the Union, for the United States as we know it today, was bleak. Were the South to win that July day, the first northern state capitol – Harrisburg – would fall to the Confederates. Nothing would stop them from reaching Baltimore, and Washington. If the Army of the Potomac lost yet again on this field, the South would very likely take Washington, the British would enter the war on the side of the Confederacy and the mighty Royal Navy would break the Union blockade. In the words of Shelby Foote, the war would be over — lost. The Federal position was strong, but it had a fatal weakness.
At the southern end of the Union line were two small hills. The smaller and nearer, called Little Round Top by the locals, overlooked the entire Union position. Artillery placed on that hill could fire down the entire Union line, wreaking carnage on the men below. The entire position would become untenable.
No one was on Little Round Top. Across the ground that Pickett would cross the next day, this did not escape the eye of Confederate Lieutenant General Longstreet. He knew that if he could get some guns on that little hill the battle would be over. Indeed, the war would be over – won. He asked Lee if he could send his toughest men, John Bell Hood’s Texans and Alabamans, to take that hill. Lee agreed.
Back on Cemetery Ridge, the Blue commanders realized, at long last and to their abject horror, the danger they were in. They immediately sent some regiments down the line to hold that hill, extending the left of their line up Little Round Top. And there, on the afternoon of July 2 nd, 1863, history and the Professor of Rhetoric collided. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was an amateur. And everything he knew about tactics he had read, on his own, in a little book he carried with him in case it would come in handy.
He knew that his 20 th Maine Regiment was the extreme left of the entire Union army. In fact, he could look over to that man standing there, the one with the neatly trimmed beard: that fellow, right there, was the end of the line. Chamberlain knew the significance of his position on the field. He knew if he failed the Union left would roll up and crumble the way the right had a few weeks before in the disaster at Chancellorsville. He knew the Union could not bear another defeat of that magnitude.
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Up from the valley below came Hood’s men: fierce, shrieking, caterwauling demons, the same pack of wolves that had shattered the Union line at Gaines Mill and whipped and humiliated their opponents every time they had taken the field. They came up through the thin forest yelling like furies. Chamberlain casually walked the line, keeping his men cool, plugging holes and moving reserves while showing the utter disregard for his own life that commanders of both sides were expected to show during those horrible brawls. Repeated and steady volleys drove the Southerners back, but not for long. They came again.
Again they were driven back. Again they came with their weird and terrifying Rebel Yell, and again they were knocked back by withering volleys from the 20 th Maine. The Northerners were holding on, but by sheer guts alone, for each charge and counter-volley knocked more men out of the line, heads and arms and torsos exploding under the impact of the heavy lead musket balls. Worse, they were by now almost out of ammunition. The Confederates were skilled tacticians.
When the men from Maine showed more determination than expected, they looked for a way around them, to hit the line from behind. Quickly they sent their men sideways, to the left, trying to get around the corner and attack from the rear. Chamberlain saw this. Armies could readjust themselves, but there was nothing in the little book about what to do with a single regiment. So he planted the flag, and on that spot, he sent men off at a right angle, like an open gate, to confront the flanking Confederates head on. Again they came on, getting right to the lines this time.
Again they were shot and clubbed back down the hill. Again they massed for another charge, their determination to take that hill as strong as the 20 th’s was to defend it. Only now, Chamberlain’s men were completely out of ammunition. During this latest repulse the Rebel veterans had staggered back down the side of Little Round Top under a hail of rocks being thrown by the exhausted men in Blue. And so we come to this exact time and place. It is the 2 nd of July, 1863, just south of a small Pennsylvania town.
You are on a small hill covered with thin pine trees. Your face is black with gunpowder: it burns your throat and eyes, it has cracked your lips, and you are more thirsty than you believed possible. All around you are dead and dying men, some moaning, some screaming in agony as they clutch shattered arms or hold in their bowels. The field in front of you is covered with dead Rebels, and yet the ground looks alive, undulating, as the wounded Confederates try to crawl back to safety. In the woods below you can hear fresh enemy troops arrive, hear orders being issued in the soft accents of the deep South. You have no more musket rounds.
There aren’t even very many rocks left to throw. And you know that this time, they will succeed. These men have never been beaten, least of all by you. You are a professor of Rhetoric at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. As you walk what is left of your line, you know you have fought bravely and well, done more than could ever be asked of you. You have no choice but to fall back in orderly retreat.
Your men are out of ammunition. To stand here and take another charge is to die. It’s that simple. These men are your responsibility. Their families depend on you to bring them home. Many have already died.
To not retreat will likely condemn many more wives to being widows, not the least your own. You look down past the dead and dying men to the bottom of the hill. Masses of determined Confederate men are emerging, coming for you. They are not beaten. They are determined to have this hill. Off to your left stands Old Glory, the hinge in your pathetic, small gate.
You know that this is a war to preserve a Union, a system of government four score and seven years old. Many said such a system of self rule could not possibly survive. If you retreat now, today will be the day they are proven right. You cannot go back. You cannot stay here. Your men look at you.
You utter two words:” Fix Bayonets.” You can see the reaction on the faces of the men. No, that can’t be right. He couldn’t possibly mean it. But you do mean it.
You know history. In the middle of this shock and death and agony, amid the blood and stench and acrid smoke, you have the perspective even now to see what is really at stake here. As Chamberlain walked his line one last time, he smiled, and shouted, “Stand firm, ye boys of Maine, for not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities!’ Today, the United States is at war with Iraq. Before the Civil War, we would have said, “the United States are at War with Iraq.” Before the Civil War, the United States was plural, a collection of relatively weak, sovereign nations. After the Civil War, we were welded by fire and death into a single, indivisible nation. There is a marker, in a forest, on a hill, to mark that transition.
We are a nation because the Rhetoric professor did not retreat. He did not tire, he did not falter, and he did not fail. As the Confederates charged Little Round Top to take the hill, the battle, and the war, the schoolteacher from Maine drew his sword, and swung his gate around like a baseball bat, hitting the Rebels on the side as they leapt down upon the shocked and awed Confederates who promptly broke and ran. There would, of course, be two more years of blood and carnage: Pickett’s Charge was 24 hours in the future; the Bloody Angle and Cold Harbor further down that dark, unseen road. If you told the men of the 20 th Maine that day they had saved the Union on Little Round Top, they would have looked at you as if you were mad. It was, after all, a relatively small engagement in the biggest, bloodiest battle in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
But you have to ask yourself if perhaps Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain might have had a glimpse of the future. “Not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities!” he had shouted. He knew, on some level, that this history being written large, that the actions of a small, battered regiment, indeed, the actions of a single man, would determine whether we would live in one country, or two. In 1865 the issue of American Slavery, an issue dodged in 1783, an issue compromised in 1850, and an issue that tore us apart as a people was settled once and for all, by force of arms. By War. Secession was settled, too – settled most emphatically.
War settled whether the Mediterranean Sea would be a Carthaginian Lake or a Roman one. War settled whether Jerusalem would be Christian or Muslim. War determined whether a surrender document would be signed aboard the Missouri in Tokyo Bay or on the Yamato just off Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. War determined whether France would be living through four years, or a millennia of darkness under Nazi supermen, and a weird, ghostly war determined whether or not there would be Englishmen and Scots and Americans living and dying in gulags in Siberia. And four years of unimaginably brutal war determined whether or not the United States of America would in fact be a land where all men are created equal. War determined whether the fatal, poisonous stain of slavery would split the nation into two irreconcilable camps, or whether the blood and sacrifice of men at Little Round Top and The Angle and Cold Harbor would, in part, wash away that stain and put right that which was unable to be put right at the birth of this awesome experiment in self-rule.
We have markers on the fields at Gettysburg because there men died so that men and women like Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice and Vincent Brooks and Shoshana Johnson and millions of other African-Americans would have a chance to experience the American promise as full and equal members. Having walked these fields of slaughter and murder, I now know that the marble and monuments are not glorification’s of death, but reminders of the sacrifice of men determined to fight and die to do the right thing for people other than themselves. Lincoln’s purpose at the beginning of the war was to preserve the Union. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union.
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” But if our Civil War was started for the most pragmatic of reasons, by the time it was over the motivation had changed. When Grant took overall command and swung the Union armies into the south like a sledgehammer, the war took on a brutality and carnage unbelievable even to those jaded by the previous horrors. And yet as the Union armies marched through the south singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the voices of the men would swell in choked emotion as they sang: As he died to make men holy Let us die to make men free While God is marching on. Sacrifice and death transformed that War, and remade the nation.
Abolition, at the outset a position taken by a vocal minority in New England and the Midwest, became the great cause of liberation and freedom for all men. Back in 1996, when I walked those fields, I did not know how such a thing could have happened. But now I do. For I see exactly the same thing happening today in Iraq. No sane person wants to fight a war. But many sane people believe that there are times when they are necessary.
I believe this is one of those times. For it seems to me that if you are against any war – if you believe that peace is always the right choice — then you must believe at least one, if not both of the following: 1. People will always be able to come to a reasonable agreement, no matter how deep or contentious the issue, and that all people are rational, reasonable, honorable, decent and sane, or, 2. It is more noble to live under slavery and oppression, to endure torture, institutionalized rape, theft and genocide than it is to fight it. History, not to mention personal experience, shows me that the first proposition is clearly false.
I believe, to put it plainly, that some people have been raised to become pathological murderers, liars, and first-rate bastards, and that these people will kill and brutalize the good meek people, and steal from and murder them whenever it is in their personal interest to do so. You are, of course, free to disagree about this element of humanity. I, however, can put a great many names on the table. History is littered with people and regimes just like this: entire nations ruled by murderers and thugs, savage and brutal men who could herd grandmothers and babies into gas chambers and march to battle with guns in the backs of old men and teenage girls for use as human shields. I believe these people are real, and that they cannot be reasoned with.
I believe that there are entire societies where dominance and force are the norm, and where cooperation and compromise are despised and scorned. Again, history gives me quite a sizable list, and that list is evidence of the first order. There are people – pacifists – who do not deny this, and these are the people who I really do find repulsive and deeply disturbing, for these are people who acknowledge the presence of evil men and evil regimes, and yet are unwilling to do anything about them. These are the people who cling to fantasies about containment and inspections and resolutions, people who acknowledge that barbarism and torture are rampant but who desperately cling to these niceties as long as nothing bad happens to them. When you point out to them that 9/11 showed that bad things can happen when you ignore such people, they simply point out that Hitler or Stalin or Mao is not as bad as all that, that they haven’t done anything to us yet, that action against them is unconscionable and illegitimate. There are also people who say “better Red than dead,” people who would rather face the possibility of slavery – for ourselves or others — than the certainty of a fight, with all it’s attendant blood and misery.
I’m sorry to say it, but to me that is nothing but sheer cowardice and refined selfishness. We fight wars not to have peace, but to have a peace worth having. Slavery is peace. Tyranny is peace. For that matter, genocide is peace when you get right down to it. The historical consequences of a philosophy predicated on the notion of no war at any cost are families flying to the Super Bowl accompanied by three or four trusted slaves and a Europe devoid of a single living Jew.
It would be nice if there were a way around this. History, not merely my opinion, shows us that there is not. If all you are willing to do is think happy thoughts, then those are the consequences. If you want justice, and freedom, and safety, and prosperity, then sometimes you have to fight for them. I still don’t know why so many people haven’t figured this out. Growing up a sci-fi nerd has a few – very few – advantages.
One of the greatest was getting to read the Time Guardians series of novels by the late, and deeply gifted Poul Anderson. These stories were the cream of a hoary old sci-fi genre, that being the idea of parallel universes, histories where interference or accidents caused the chips to fall in very different ways. Poul Anderson showed me worlds in which the Chinese discovered America, where Carthage defeated Rome. Other writers have taken us to worlds where desperate Americans vie for jobs as household servants to the occupying Japanese administrators after the American loss in World War 2, and to a 1960’s Nazi Germany where all evidence of the Holocaust has been buried and destroyed.
I’ve read accounts of Winston Churchill emerging from behind the barricades of 10 Downing Street, Tommy gun in hand, being cut down in a hail of bullets from the invading Nazis at the collapse of street-to-street fighting in London. There are many others. All of these stories have a common thread: someone has gone back in time, tinkered ever so slightly, and produced a horrific world in which, for example, the Nazis and the Japanese divide their American possessions at the Mississippi. In them, something has gone horribly wrong. But I have often wondered, what if this history, the one we know as reality, was the one gone horribly wrong? For example: In the fall of 1999, the Clinton Administration took the hugely unpopular decision to invade Afghanistan to root out Islamic terrorists organized by a largely-unknown fanatic named Osama Bin Laden. Operation Homeland Security cost the lives of almost 300 servicemen, and did long-lasting damage to our relations with NATO, the UN, and especially Russia.
President Clinton, at great political cost to himself and the Democratic Party, claimed to be acting on repeated intelligence that Bin Laden and his “phantom” organization – whose name escapes me – planned massive and sustained terrorist attacks against the United States. Peace protestors gathered between the towers of the World Trade Center in September, 2004 on the five-year anniversary of the illegal and immoral invasion, calling on President Gore to pay the UN-ordered reparations to the Taliban Government. Or: Today, April 20 th, Germans again celebrate the birthday of Adolph Hitler with a parade down a stretch of the autobahn, one of his greatest achievements. Although forced from office in disgrace when a platoon of French soldiers contested his entry into the Rhineland in 1936, his rebuilding of Germany following the ruin of the Great War, and his subsequent lobbying for American economic support, culminating in the Lindbergh Plan and Germany’s spectacular economic growth through the forties and fifties, so rehabilitated his reputation that he remains one of the greatest and most revered figures in German history. And we can go on like this for a very long time. I see history as an unimaginably huge and complicated railroad switching yard, where by moving a pair of steel rails a few inches one way or another, the great train of history can be diverted from Chicago to Atlanta.
These switches may seem ridiculously small at the time, but the consequences are often immeasurable. So when I stood on Little Round Top and walked down that little hill for the last time that day, I saw more than dead and dying men littering the ground. I saw two nations where today there is one. I saw a Second Civil War, perhaps in 1909, or 1913, for these two countries would never peacefully co-exist – not with people as proud and energetic as we. I saw not seven thousand dead at Cold Harbor, but 70, 000 cut down in an hour by machine guns in the Battle of Tallahassee, saw the gas attacks along the Cleveland Trenches that left half a million dead and dying. I saw, perhaps, the dimmest outlines of a Third American War, fought perhaps in ’34 or ’37 with millions of civilians killed in great air raids over Washington and Richmond.
Of course, these millions never died. They lived long and full lives, most of them – and had children, namely us. They didn’t die, these millions, because the men at Cold Harbor and The Angle and Little Round Top did. Now it seems fair to say that you can boil down the opinions of many of those opposed to the War in Iraq to a question uttered by leading anti-war activist Susan Sarandon, who asked, “I want to know what Iraq has done to us.” There are two reasons to fight this war. One is so that History will never be able to answer that question. I don’t ever want to read about the VX attacks that left 16, 000 dead at Atlanta Hartsfield airport.
I don’t want to see the video of makeshift morgues inside the LA Coliseum as more anthrax victims are emptied from the hospitals. And I don’t want to look at helicopter shots of a blackened, radioactive crater where Times Square used to be, or of millions of dead bodies burning in funeral pyres, like columns of failure, dead from starvation and disease in the worldwide depression that such an attack on New York would produce. I’m sure Miss Sarandon, and others, would criticize this response as fantasy. I’m also sure that had President Clinton taken military action against Bin Laden in the 1990’s, the idea that planes could be flown into skyscrapers, that thousands would die as the New York skyline collapsed upon them would be seen as equally fantastic and absurd. Preposterous. Paranoid.
Impossible. But the fact remains that History will be written one way or another. Saddam’s crimes are well documented, as are his ambitions and his WMD programs. Are they worth stopping with force, before they have been used? I say yes, emphatically, and that anything less from the President is a dereliction of duty. Many do not see it this way. I have to ask those people if they would have supported a military invasion of Afghanistan, with all the consequent upheavals, UN condemnation, and protest, in order to get Osama Bin Laden before he made 9/11 a symbol of disaster and death.
The howls of protest that such people would have put up at such pre-emotive action are exceeded only by the shrieks from these same people that something wasn’t done about 9/11 before it happened. Here is what I personally believe: I believe that after September 11 th, 2001, the Bush Administration sat down and took a very cold and hard look at what was going on in the world. I believe that they came to the conclusion that the post- WWII policy of depending on a strongman, an Ataturk or even a Nasser, to lift the Middle East into the modern world was an abject failure. I believe that they saw a region so steeped in despair and failure and repression that it would continue to generate, through asymmetrical warfare and weapons of mass destruction, an intolerable threat to the United States. I believe that they came to realize that even if we were to pay the price of living in a police state, we cannot stop terrorists with flyswatters. Despite our best efforts, sooner of later, some of them will succeed, either with jet-fueled airplanes, or smallpox aerosols, or Sarin-filled crop dusters, or a suitcase nuke in Times Square or the steps of the capitol.
As long as the failure of Arab nations generates such rage and hatred, they will keep coming. There is no end to the numbers a swamp like that can generate. I believe that the United States government has taken a very bold decision to take the first steps to drain that swamp, and that this War in Iraq is the throwing of a railway switch to divert us from a very terrible train wreck lying ahead in the dark tunnel of history yet unwritten. Surely they know full well that this action will, in the short term, cause even more hatred and anger to be directed to us. But I see this as a chance – perhaps our last chance – to eliminate one of the states capable of and committed to the development of such weapons, and in the bargain establish a foothold of freedom and democracy in a region notable for its resistance to this historic trend. Furthermore, I see it as a means of averting such wars in the future, for it shows in the most stark terms available that we are serious about this issue, and more than anything, when we talk about the safety and security of the United States of America we mean what we say.
Entire wars have been caused by miscalculations of an enemy’s resolve. As Tony Blair made clear in his ringing speech before Parliament on the eve of the war, to back down now, to show ourselves incapable of action, would have made all subsequent diplomatic efforts essentially meaningless. Showing that we will fight — and fight all the way — will make it far less likely that our enemies will miscalculate the way we allowed Saddam and Bin Laden to miscalculate. As national policy, it is risky, and it is extremely dangerous. It is also an act of astonishing courage and leadership, because the alternative is horrible beyond contemplation. We are in the very early stages of a great and difficult campaign, one fraught with many setbacks and much loss.
Although chaotic and uncertain to us today, it is a campaign that makes sense only through the long lens of history, for despite the blood and destruction, and the faces of those brave men and women held up to us nightly, it is the course most likely to steer us through these reefs into the open waters of security and a peace worth living under – a peace based on real security, on a free and democratic and successful Middle East, not the petty and false peace of inaction and denial in the face of the threatening storm. The world faced this choice in the late 1930’s, and chose an easy ‘peace’ — ‘Peace for our Time.’ History records our reward. Those who oppose this war may not be willing to face the pages of history that will forever remain unwritten by us taking this action in Iraq. But two things we can be assured of, and both of them are worth noting in these anxious times.
First, while we cannot say that Weapons of Mass Destruction will never be used against the United States, we can — because of this courageous action — say that they will not be Iraqi weapons. A swamp littered with chemical weapons shells, with anthrax-dispersing jet aircraft, and with a robust, stubborn and dedicated nuclear weapons program is being drained nightly before our eyes. That is a great victory. Second, while the long-term outcome is hard to see through the fog of war, we are in fact sending our own children to die to set a people free. When Saddam’s murdering henchmen are dead and gone, when he and his psychopathic regime lie burning and shattered like his posters and statues, we may – or may not – see people emerge from three decades of horror to greet us as liberators, once they truly realize that doing so will not cost them their lives. But even if they don’t, it does not matter.
The Japanese and Germans saw us as conquerors and occupiers too, not to mention the people of Alabama and Georgia and South Carolina. All of these people fought, and fought hard, for regimes that had kept them in bondage. Nazism and Japanese Imperialism fell away relatively quickly and painlessly. American racism was a deeper problem; it has taken more than a century to remake this society, and while that war is not yet over it most certainly has been won. We may or may not have prevented more attacks on the United States. We may or may not have generated a greater short-term threat from terror.
I personally think that recent history has shown that resolute action, that taking the offensive, has been a great deterrent to terror, and that the operation in Iraq will do much more in that regard. I could be wrong. History will tell us, soon enough. But of one thing I am absolutely certain.
Despite all the switches in the rail yard, there is a flow and a direction to history that cannot and will not be denied. It is the slow, uneven, grasping climb toward freedom. There are markers on Little Round Top, on the beaches at Normandy, and in the sands of Nasiriyah that show us where men have fought and laid down their lives, and willingly left their wives without husbands and their children without fathers, all for this idea. It is an idea bigger than they are, bigger than self-centered movie stars, bigger than cynical and bitter journalists, bigger than Presidents and Dictators, bigger, in fact, than all human failure and miscalculation.
It is the idea that people – all people – deserve to live their lives in freedom. Free from fear. Free from want. Free from despair and hatred. My country has, again, taken up that banner, and the behavior of our young men and women under unimaginable stress and provocation has filled me with fierce and unremitting pride. We fight, nearly alone, alongside old and true friends, British and Australian, themselves decent and honorable people, long champions of freedom who have their own Waterloos and Gallipoli’s and cemeteries marked with fields of red poppies, rolls of sacrifice and honor that should fill all American hearts with pride.
For friends like this are worth having, and I will always prefer the company of one or two solid, dependable friends over legions of fashionable and trendy and unreliable ones. And someday, centuries from now, in the world we all hope for but which only a few will fight for, all of this death and destruction will be gone. All that will be left will be small markers in green fields that were once deserts, places where Iraqi families may walk someday with the same taken-for-granted sense of happiness and security I had in Pennsylvania and Virginia. And perhaps they will read the strange-sounding names, and try to imagine a time when it was all in doubt.