The Prison of the Present

by Victor Davis Hanson

Real Clear Politics

Listen to the present televised hysteria. Too few troops! No, too many still there! The CIA is out of control! No, it is weak and irrelevant! The Iraq mess only empowered Iran! No, its democratic experiment is the best way to undermine that neighboring theocracy.

Such frenzy of the 24-hour news cycle is now everywhere, as we are lectured that our victories over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein have caused as many problems as they solved.

But in war aren’t choices usually between the bad and the far worse? So often victory leads not to utopia, but only something better.

Take our past ambiguous successes. Recall that the outcome of America’s horrific, but successful, Civil War that ended slavery led not to racial harmony. Instead followed over a decade of failed Reconstruction and another century of Jim Crow apartheid in the South.

We saved a reeling Britain and France in World War I. But an isolationist United States did not occupy a defeated Germany. So we fought a resurgent Hitler little more than twenty years later, who talked of the ‘stab in the back,’ while he bragged that imperial Germany had withdrawn unbeaten from foreign soil.

The outcome of World War II (note the sudden need for the Roman numerals) was not perpetual peace or even the freedom of Eastern Europe, but rather its enslavement and a Cold War of a half-century.

The United States prevailed in saving South Korea. Yet it still bequeathed a lunatic nuclear communist state to our grandchildren.

Gulf War I was a smashing success. But it was followed by the slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds, twelve years of no-fly zones, and yet another war against Saddam.

Almost every controversy in this present war also proves to be a rehash of the past. Poorly armored Humvees? Thousands, not hundreds, of Americans perished, in thin-skinned Sherman tanks (“Ronson lighters”) that never were up-armored even at the end of World War II.

Too few troops? In late July 1944 as Gen. George Patton raced eastward through France, the topic never came up. But by autumn as several under-strength American armies suddenly stalled on the distant Rhine, national recrimination replaced the earlier euphoria. What fool planner had advocated a broad-front advance into Germany with far too few soldiers?

Did removing Saddam empower Iran? No more so than ending Nazism gave more opportunity for our “ally” Stalin to enslave Eastern Europe.

Why was our Iraqi intelligence so poor in assessing the potential for postwar insurgency? The same was asked how some surprised American divisions near the end of World War II were nearly annihilated by Germans in the Bulge and by the Japanese on Okinawa?

Won’t Iraq require years of occupation? We hope not. But years after our victories, American troops are still residing in Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, and the Balkans.

The point of these historical comparisons is not to excuse our present mistakes by citing worse ones from the past — or to suggest that all wars are always the same. Much less should history’s examples be used to stifle necessary contemporary criticism that alone leads to remedy.

Rather knowledge of the capricious nature of wars of the past can restore a little humility to our national psyche.

We need it. Ours is the first generation of Americans that thinks it can demand perfection in war. Our present leisure, wealth, and high technology fool us into thinking that we are demi-gods always able to trump both human and natural disasters. Accordingly, we become frustrated that we cannot master every wartime obstacle, as we seem otherwise to be able to do with computers or cosmetic surgery. Then, without any benchmarks of comparison from the past, we despair that our actions are failed because they are not perfect.

But why did a poorer, less educated, and more illiberal United States in far bloodier and more error-ridden wars of the past still have greater confidence in itself? Was it that our ancestors, who died younger and far more tragically, did not expect their homeland to be without flaws, only to be considerably better than the enemy’s?

Perhaps we have forgotten such modesty because we have ignored the study of history that alone offers us guidance from our forbearers. It now competes as an orphan discipline with social science, -ologies and -isms that entice us into thinking that the more money and education of the present can at last perfect the human condition and thus consign our flawed past to irrelevance.

The result is that while sensitive young Americans seem to know what correct words and ideas they must embrace, they derive neither direction nor solace from past events. After all, very few could identify Vicksburg or Verdun, much less have any idea where or what Iwo Jima was. In such a lonely prison of the present what are historically ignorant Americans to make of a Fallujah or an Iranian madman’s threat of annihilation other than such things can’t or shouldn’t or must not happen to us?

So, of this present war, I think our war-torn forefathers would say to us that both messy Afghanistan and Iraq are better places without their dictators even if they never will resemble Carmel or Austin.

They would add that it is not unusual to be confronted with new crises even after such apparently easy victories. And they would shrug that however scary Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran now appears, it poses nothing new or insurmountable to a confident and strong United States that has dealt with far more serious enemies in the past with its accustomed wisdom and resolve.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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