Ask someone who has been there, “What did you do during the war?” Often, not always, you’ll get an answer. Usually you will hear anecdotes, sometimes about fighting, frequently about buddies and the things they did. Some of their friends did not make it back, and you’ll see that in their eyes before they say it. Others did come home, to join the ranks of veterans, the people we honor this day. Ask them about their war and you’ll hear stories. But ask them what it meant, what it was for, and they may pause. It’s a difficult question. It requires drawing strategic meaning from tactical experiences, something the vet may not have thought much about. Usually the response is, “We had a job to do,” a very American way of looking at war–something needs doing, we get it done. A situation needs fixing, we fix it.
Defining what a war means in the big picture is not the job of the warrior. It is something we leave to politicians going in, and afterwards it is in the hands of historians. Most people want wars to be unambiguous; they like their good to be perfect and their evil, bad as hell. Of course, not everyone can say so publicly, as General Boykin found out, a war fighter who has seen enough of both extremes to be more than qualified as expert. And this dichotomy is rarely the case, though Saddam’s mass graves point to at least half of the equation being right on the money. Nevertheless, when so many people are demanding swift and simple answers to the complexities of 21st-century warfare, it is useful to look back at our nations many wars, which were frequently less than definitive.
One obstacle is that World War II set the gold standard for our understanding of what a war is, and raised expectations so high that no war since has adequately met them. It opened with an unprecedented act of naked aggression. It was a global struggle against twin variants of the same expression of state slavery. It had a classic story line (the bad guys were winning there for awhile until the good guys came roaring back). There were many large-scale battles, acts of heroism, and sacrifices. It was war the way war should be, an all-out winner-take-all struggle for survival. When it ended few doubted we had achieved something extraordinary, and that it was more or less definitive. Its veterans had no doubts about what they did or why, and it earned them the sobriquet “the greatest generation.” We will be lucky if we never face another war like it.
The Civil War was also conflict in which veterans, on both sides, came away with a sense of finality and completeness. For the northerners, they did what they sought to do, preserve the Union, and whip the rebels. For the Confederates, they took pride in the fight they gave the Yankees and the cost they bore. Moreover, it is a mark of the nature of American civilization that the postwar period was largely without the sort of grim reprisals that one would have found in almost any other country faced with a massive armed internal revolt. It is noteworthy that as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, returned home to the governorship of Maine, Confederate Colonel William C. Oates, whom he defeated in battle, went back to Alabama and held the same office. The generation that met under arms in the fields of Virginia and Tennessee later refought their battles with quills on the floor of Congress. As for the American Revolution, imagine being able to say, “I was at Bunker Hill” or Saratoga, Valley Forge or Yorktown. Picture the pride of the men of Acton and Concord, as the 19th century dawned, thinking back to their youth on the hillside near North Bridge, and Isaac Davis’ ringing call, “I haven’t a man who is afraid to go!” before he met his doom routing the British. I doubt those veterans were at all conflicted about what they did or what it meant.
But what of our ambiguous wars? The War of 1812 was most notable for a battle that took place after it was over, and all in all was hard to justify as a victory. The conflict with Mexico began with the country divided politically, and a president acting more or less unilaterally, trying to pick a fight. The opposing forces faced each other for a year before coming to blows, and declarations of war came only after the opening battles were fought. Sentiment became less equivocal after a series of determined actions across the Rio Grande, and a bold thrust into the center of Mexico by an outnumbered U.S. force that seized the Mexican capital. Bandits attacked American troops for months afterwards, but the greater sense of victory tended to mitigate their impact.
The First Seminole War was quick and brutal, and the Second, long, difficult, but final. Veterans of both of those conflicts were mostly just happy to be home. Those who took part in the other Indian wars, such as against the Cheyenne, Sioux and Apache, might be able to relate some of the drama, the thrill of the chase, but most frontier duty consisted of endless patrols, or sitting in garrison. As well, there were the countless overseas expeditions and punitive raids, from the Barbary Pirates through the Banana Wars of the 20th century, which yielded some tales of adventure and perhaps the odd souvenir. The Spanish American War was another controversial conflict in its day, though a brief one and with dash, a war whose small number of vets could speak of with pride. But it spawned the Philippine Insurrection, a lengthy counterinsurgency against nationalist and Islamic guerrillas that divided the country and became a political dogfight. The First World War was in some respects the opposite of the Mexican War, in that the peace created more confusion than the fight. The War to End All War fell far short of its mark. Wilsonian Idealism was mugged by power politics, and the U.S. discovered it had made the world safe for British and French Imperialism. The veterans expressed their sense of betrayal by voting for a return to normalcy, which at the time meant the Republican party and isolation.
The Korean War was a draw, but the vets of that “police action” had an identity shaped by surviving a nasty fight, with the miracles at Pusan, Inchon, and Chosin Reservoir serving as a repository of dignity. Vietnam was a loss, but its veterans have a deep pride born of suffering, particularly that which was imposed on them by others. They now stand tall, and those who in their youth spat on them still feel far too little shame. Then are the numerous small actions of recent memory–Desert One, Grenada, Beirut, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo–and talking to those veterans one hears a variety of opinions. They did their jobs, whatever they amounted to, sometimes more, sometimes less; Grenada stands at one end, small, easy to comprehend, quick, complete; Somalia on the other, a confusion of force without direction, needless tragedy, and leadership too weak to turn disaster into purpose. As for Desert Storm, I have never met anyone who fought in that war who didn’t know for certain we could have taken it all the way to Baghdad and finished the job then and there.
The ongoing war on terrorism, and particularly the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, share elements of many prior conflicts. The war is global in scope, against a hostile ideology with adherents that seek to destroy our way of life. It began with an astonishing act of aggression that galvanized the will of the country. It has seen unprecedented battlefield successes, and scores of smaller victories both known publicly and as yet unrevealed. Yet given the nature of the adversary, who is fluid, adaptive, and hard to pin down, it is difficult to demonstrate our progress. What the unambiguous wars have in common is a sense of completion, of definition, of doing the job called upon us to do, and that doing it mattered. Goals were achieved; maybe not the same objectives sought in the beginning, maybe not achieved in the way expected, and definitely not attained without sacrifice. And in every conflict–every single one–the critics, second guessers, armchair generals, and political opportunists made their numerous and dubious contributions. Despite this, wars were won. If today’s recent veterans and those still in the field begin to have doubts, it is not their fault. It is not their responsibility to find meaning in the war. In all of our conflicts the fighting men and women serve either because they believe in what they are doing, or they do what they are told. They fight for their country, for their families, for their friends. If their efforts and sacrifices are to mean anything beyond the events themselves, it is up to the rest of us to work together to confirm that meaning. Today’s war fighters require clarity, unity, and team spirit on the home front if they are ever to join the ranks of tomorrow’s veterans. We need to do our job, because they are doing theirs.