The controversy over America’s “War on Terror,” since it started in 2001, has occupied much of our national attention. After swift and decisive battlefield successes in 2002 and 2003, we are now struggling to fashion democracies in the countries we occupied, and expending resources and lives in the process. The issue of whether or not we should continue our involvement provokes much criticism and righteous debate. Many Americans find our involvement in this “war on terror” to be useless, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous, and think it would be prudent to pull out.
It is not the first time American has seen such debate. Between 1 September 1939 and 7 December 1941, similar opinions were voiced and similar decisions were made. On 1 September, Hitler’s Germany provoked war with our ally Britain by invading Poland, and on 7 December we were pulled into the war ourselves after Japan, Germany’s ally, attacked Hawaii. Between those two dates, FDR — a controversial American President who had alienated many with his “socialist” domestic policies — attempted to support freedom and advance our interests by taking the British Side and providing them resources against much righteous criticism that such actions were useless, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous. There are, of course, differences between FDR and George Bush, such as the fact they hailed from different parties and different political ideologies. But both were accused of warmongering, both faced vile opposition from journalists and opposing politicians, and both were loudly accused of ruining this country with their policies. Certainly their most important similarity is that they both claimed to stand up for freedom and democracy, and protect America’s interests abroad.
History has endorsed out FDR’s actions. The Nazi regime stands exposed as guilty of perhaps the greatest and most significantly evil endeavor in human history, the industrial and industrially cruel murder of some 11 million persons, six million of which were Jews. Additionally, in their quest for economic and military dominance, they wrought destruction upon the entire continent of Europe by (among other atrocities) demolishing and starving Warsaw, brutally conquering peaceful Denmark and Norway, plundering France, and relentlessly bombing civilian London. Yet through 1940 and 1941, all this was merely unpleasant to America, the unfortunate effect of another petty European conflict. In those dark years, FDR used deceit and presidential powers to the utmost of his ability to aid our old democratic allies against their enemies, against the will of his constituents.
George Bush is attempting to do something of the same thing. Our enemies now are guilty of great evil, from the use of ethnic Kurds as test subjects for Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons, to the cruel and systematic oppression of women under the Taliban. Therefore, deposing them was a good thing. Furthermore, though perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan (and, it seems, Iran) are not explicitly allied with the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and Madrid subway cars, the simple fact that these countries turned a blind eye to terrorist training they knew was directed against their hated enemy, the United States, establishes an implict connection. Al Qaeda may be stateless, but that does not mean states do not make them welcome. And according to our laws, harboring a criminal is criminal in and of itself.
Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote a two-volume work on World War II. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance follow the experience and growth of Victor Henry, a U.S. Navy Officer, his family, and the many people they meet (American and otherwise) in the events of that War, and their parts in the struggle against America’s fascist enemies. As with all great novels, these books are not meant merely to entertain, but to teach and communicate something of the human condition; in these the author attempts to reveal the depth of human goodness and evil; to document the human ability to strive, to suffer, to hurt, and to love; and to show the final virtue of individual goodness, and through it the goodness of nations. It is a masterful work. In a recently written forward to the books, Mr. Wouk compares the struggle of America in World War II to the current “War on Terror”:
“As I write these words late in October 2001, a new war is just beginning, global again in scope but totally different in character. In the last global war, before VE day and VJ day came, there befell the collapse of France, the Bataan death march, the fall of Singapore, the siege of Stalingrad, bloody Tarawa and bloodier Guadalcanal; and at the hidden heart of that global war, concealed by the smoke of battle, there burned the holocaust. That eternal benchmark of barbarism, let us remember, was set not by a Third World country, not by Orientals, not by the Muslims, but by the Germans, an advanced European nation. The evil in human heart knows no boundary, except the deeper, stronger human will to freedom, order, and justice. In the very long run, that will has so far prevailed.
“Now it is the destiny of America — for all its faults and weaknesses, the greatest free society in history — to lead the world against a new grim outbreak of evil, a savage stab at the core of freedom on earth, a dark shocking start to a new millenium. May the Father of all men prosper our arms in the new fight, as He prospered — in the end — the cause of men of good will in World War II.”
The “destiny of America” is something felt keenly by many in this country. There is no greater expression of it than in the young men and women who serve in the military. We have been involved in this conflict since 2002, and thus for five years every person who enlisted has done so in the full knowledge that they are supporting this effort with their lives. In fact, the loudest voices against this “war on terror” and its campaigns, though they can be quite reasonable, are often from those people most removed from it: college students and professors, living lives insulated from the rest of the world on university campuses; correspondents and journalists paid to cover politicians in circles of power; and relatively idle wealthy young professionals concern themselves with political issues as a sort of hobby. This is not a bad thing, since our country has consistently prevented the rise of fascism in this country by subjecting our military to the will of our civilians and our civilian government. Yet it seems that such arguments revolve not around prudence, but fear disguised as prudence: fear that we will lose face with the world, fear that we invite more Islamic antipathy and terrorist attacks, fear that we will suffer the embarrassment and manpower drain of another Vietnam. According to these arguments, prudence is avoiding such sacrifices in the first place. I disagree. I believe true prudence is eliminating the breadbaskets of hate, the places of evil, oppression, and poverty in this world. Those hate-filled places are where terrorists breed and become strong.
We are proud that we did not suffer dictators like Hitler to bring destruction and totalitarianism upon the world. We should be likewise proud not only of deposing the evil regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but proud also to continue this work and bring democracy, as best as we can, to the shattered countries they left behind. If we endure the sacrifice of servicemen in this mission, then we should remember that they were unafraid: they volunteered to defend and carry our values to other nations; they supported America and its promises to the world with their lives. They represent our best, and we should take heart from their idealism, for to turn away from this opportunity to help a poor part of the world might seem prudent, but is in fact foolish, dangerous, and wrong. We, “for all [our] faults and weaknesses, the greatest free society in history,” are especially able to make a difference in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems right, therefore, that we should be the first to champion “freedom, order and justice.” Whether we want it or not, it is our responsibility and that of all the good men and women in the world.