Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008 - In honoring our history, are we missing its key lessons?

Today is Memorial Day, and like many int he U.S. my heart goes out this day to all U.S. Service personnel all over the world. These folks, regardless of your politics, are our proudest citizens, they make the largest sacrifice of any of us to perpetuate the ideals of our nation, and our service personnel face the harshest choices of any of us. That said, we have not done right by them in this current war. We have not insisted that they fight in wars that are truly just. We have not told our political leaders - who sent them into battle - that we will not tolerate one more death, one more wounded, one more bullet fired until we know for sure why they are fighting and dying in our name. And to top it off, we have forsaken the very lessons that their predecessors in uniform left us.

On a quiet corner of the National Mall, only a stones throw away from the Reflecting Pool, the World War II Memorial and the Tidal Basin, the World War I Memorial lies in a small grove of trees. Built by D.C. citizens. not the Park Service, this small open dome belies the huge sacrifices the U.S. made in the Great War. The U.S. left 116,708 dead in the trenches and on the battle field. The French, in contrast, lost 1,397,000 or so soldiers, all defending their own soil. So far, 4.083 Americans now rest in peace, having given their lives for the U.S. in our war in Iraq.

What the neglect of the WWI memorial (the National Park Service estimates it needs $500,000 in immediate deferred maintenance) tell us, unfortunately, is that the lessons of that war to end all wars are all but gone. Pundits, politicians, newspapers, and soldiers themselves have spent a lot of time talking about how the lessons learned in Vietnam are the best ones to guide us in Iraq. Perhaps that's true, from a tactical point of view. Strategically, however, Vietnam is no longer the best guide we have. Neither are Korea (still a draw militarily) or WWII. That leaves WWI, and here's why I think this is our best conflict to study.

First, there was no strategic reason for the U.S. to be in Europe in 1917. Arguably, there are strategic reasons to be in the mid-east now, but we've tried for 50 years to influence mid-east relationships and activities, all without much success. When U.S. doughboys went to the Great War, they soon found a front line that was bogged between immobile trenches, much like the U.S. is now bogged down in Falujah, Basra, Baquaba and Baghdad. The fighting in Europe basically ended when the major powers ran out of will to fight, and the major countries decided to stop shooting, and spend the next 30 years with their heads in the sand while Germany rearmed in defiance of the treaties that had ended hostilities. Today, the U.S.arms Sunni militias while ignoring the real issues of Syria and Iran, two countries that we could engage with and without appeasing, I might add.

The bottom line is that, while we are definitely loosing fewer soldiers in Iraq then we did in WWI, we only fought there 3 years before realizing, along with the rest of Europe, that more killing was not good. We've now entered year 6 in Iraq, and there is no end in sight.

So, as we celebrate those soldiers who have come home, stop and think for a moment. Do they really deserve to stay in that place, bogged down as our trench fighters were nearly 100 years ago. Have we learned nothing since then about what war should be?

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