Fade Away

Nothing novel or memorable with our war critics

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

“I implore you to inaugurate or invite proposals for peace forthwith. And in case peace cannot now be made, consent to an armistice for one year.”

What unpopular war was that?

And does the following gloom about American military prospects also sound familiar?: “Unless some positive and immediate action is taken, hope for success cannot be justified . . . final destruction can reasonably be contemplated.”

The first throw-in-the-towel remark, however, did not come from Howard Dean or John Murtha — but from Horace Greeley about the Civil War during the depressing summer of 1864. And the second quote is Douglas MacArthur’s bleak assessment not long after the Chinese Red Army crossed the Yalu River in the autumn of 1950.

Similar despair could be recalled from the winter of 1776, the Imperial German offensive of March 1918 or the early months of 1942 following Pearl Harbor and the Allies’ loss of the Philippines and Singapore.

America has not fought a war when at some point the news from the battlefield did not evoke a frenzy of recriminations both abroad and at home.

After the carnage of the Wilderness, Cold Harbor and Petersburg in 1864, the conventional wisdom about the Civil War was that the bumbling Abraham Lincoln could never win re-election. Instead, all summer the veteran Gen. George McClellan assured the Northern populace that there was no hope of military victory.

In November 1950, after Americans were sent scurrying southward by the Chinese, most pundits wrote off Korea as lost — before the unexpected counteroffensives of Gen. Matthew Ridgeway saved the Seoul government by the next spring.

We can derive three historical lessons that are relevant to our present finger-pointing over Iraq.

First, hysteria arises at home in almost all our wars. We almost forgot that after the recent miraculous, but atypically quick victories in Panama, the first Gulf War, Serbia, Afghanistan and the three-week toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Instead, Thomas Paine’s labeling those who bailed on George Washington in December 1776 as “sunshine patriots,” certain Americans blaming the Madison administration for the British burning of the White House in 1814 and acrimony over a completely surprised Navy at Pearl Harbor are more indicative of what occurs during American conflicts.

Lincoln was often cartooned as an ungainly ape. During the hysterics over the Korean War, George Marshall — who earlier oversaw the U.S. military victory of World War II and aid to a postwar starving Europe — was called a “front man for traitors” and “a living lie” by Indiana Sen. William Jenner.

In this context, Howard Dean’s assertion that the present war is unwinnable or John Kerry’s claim that our troops are engaging in terrorizing Iraqis is hardly novel.

Second, there is also no necessary connection between occasionally terrible news and the final outcome of the war. The near-fatal losses of the Army of the Potomac in 1864, the advances of the Kaiser’s armies in the 1918 German offensive or the carnage on Okinawa in May and June 1945 nevertheless all presaged our own victory not much later.

Third, American history is far kinder to those who persevered than those who alleged that their country’s victory was impossible. Most today revere Lincoln and Marshall, along with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who weathered unimaginable slurs. A Gen. McClellan or Sen. Jenner — who opportunistically piled on when news from the front was bad — was mostly forgotten when things inevitably improved.

The same will probably be true of Iraq. The election this week will prove the most successful yet. The Iraqi army gets bigger — and better. The Pentagon now does not fret over the need for more American troops, but agrees that evolving events on the ground will allow measured withdrawal.

Attacks by insurgents have been growing less frequent since October, according to Major General Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force — Iraq. Democracy, not al Qaeda, is the new buzz on the Arab Street. Seventy-one percent of the Iraqis in a recent ABC/Time magazine poll “say that their own lives are going well” now. The fatwas of Ayman Al-Zawahiri sound ever more desperate and shrill.

In response to all this, sober leaders of the Democratic Party will soon politely tune out the John Murthas and Nancy Pelosis. Expect the erratic copperhead Howard Dean to quietly, but prematurely, leave the chairmanship of the Democratic Party. Perennial gloom-and-doomers like John Kerry who see our efforts through the prism of Vietnam won’t again be nominated for president.

On the right, both realists and isolationists will grow more silent. “Neo-conservatism” will cease to be synonymous with an anti-Semitic slur, but once again convey a humane break with the past that finally offered the Middle East a democratic alternative to either autocracy or theocracy.

Some Americans cannot see any of this yet, since we are still in our own summer of 1864. But as the conditions in Iraq improve, and comparisons to our sole loss in Vietnam ring hollow, expect critics to grow silent. And savvy fence-sitters like Hillary Clinton will begin to preen, rather than express ambivalence, over past votes to remove Saddam.

The blame game is not unusual on the impatient home front during American wars — and is soon mostly forgotten after we finally win. Iraq is, and will be, no exception.

Editor’s note: The Tribune Media Services called this article “Winning Ugly,” the subtlety of which I missed. My apologies.

©2005 Tribune Media Services

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