A few days ago, tens of thousands of civilians were stranded on a mountain dying of thirst and starvation. Today, supported by their carrier air wing, American naval aviators from the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush are putting ordnance on target.
This action should have been taken months ago. Far too many have already perished at the hands of ISIS. Yet now, via American food, water, and bombs, civilians in Iraq’s north have found new hope. Finally, we are confronting the threat that ISIS poses to the world.
Unfortunately, the task is falling squarely on America. Our closest ally, Britain, has provided only one plane for humanitarian air relief. The sad reality of the contemporary international order is that without America, order doesn’t exist.
Don’t expect any gratitude. Shamed by their own willful impotence, many countries instead deride America’s military. When discussing politics abroad, particularly in 1.3-percent-ville (aka Western Europe, where Germany allocates a mere 1.3 percent of its GDP to defense), Americans frequently get lectured on how the U.S. military is “all kit” — unprofessional but supported by advanced technology.
It’s time to call out this absurdity. Is advanced equipment important? Yes. Still, the American military’s real strength isn’t the equipment; it’s the personnel. A case in point is Captain Matthew Paradise of the U.S. Navy. Paradise started his Navy career as a Navy SEAL. He then went to engineering school. Following that, he became an F-18 pilot. Next, he was selected as a Navy test pilot and simultaneously earned an engineering master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. Today, Paradise is the executive officer of the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush. When President Obama finally ordered military action against ISIS, the military’s rapid response wasn’t a product of luck. It was possible because men and women like Captain Paradise were on deck.
Of course, there will always be those who are blind to this truth, those who believe that American power is about robotic imperialism. (Read the comments below my recent article in the Guardian.) Nevertheless, America’s moral truth is ultimately defined by reality. As evident in the lives of citizens such as Frederick Chapman, Ross McGinnis, Kareem Khan, and millions of others, the history of America and human freedom are inextricably bound together.
If you doubt this, consider what America means to those who are now facing tyranny — such as people suffering under Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe or under Chinese imperialism in the East Pacific. Consider the thousands of Yezidis now saved from slaughter. To them, America offers a buffer of hope against moral darkness.
This truth brings me to John Wayne’s The Sands of Iwo Jima. After following the stories of a group of young Marines in World War II, the movie ends with the raising of Old Glory on Iwo Jima. After a solemn moment, one Marine speaks to the others: “Alright, saddle up, let’s get back in the war.” The Marines move off, back down the mountain and into the maelstrom. Given the history of that battle, which saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war and resulted in extremely heavy losses, the scene is very moving.
Don’t get me wrong, I know from my grandfather (a veteran of Okinawa) that there’s no beauty to the costly and continuing sacrifice war demands. I believe we must vigorously scrutinize the need for military action. But this movie scene has always been important to me. It’s a reminder that America is a nation that accepts terrible burdens in defense of great values, a true depiction of America: the world’s exceptional nation.