Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Great War

Almost every writer I've encountered who lived through the Great War, whether English, German, or French, remarks on the beautiful summer of 1914. The weather in Western Europe, apparently, was perfect, with long, glorious days and lovely sunsets. So September 2001 was, as I remember, a perfect Indian Summer here in the Northeast.

When my son and I finally made it up to New York, in October, the air was still suffused with the glow of that autumn. But it also stank, of course, of crushed particle-board and airline fuel and rotting flesh.

And there the parallel ends. The youths who went off to World War I did not know they were walking into that meat-grinder. But, in retrospect, it was clear where they were going. A set of nations equally matched, with equal firepower, going to war at one of those moments when the technology entirely tilts the odds in favor of the defenders.

The Americans who had seen the trench fighting at the end of the U.S. Civil War (Emory Upton, for instance) might have been able to warn them of this. But if they did, no one listened. Twenty-five years later, technology (more fickle than fortune) had turned the tables again, and with mobile tank brigades and dive bombers, the attackers again held the upper hand (Spain could have taught them that), and when Germany went to war with France and Russia again the result was very different than it had been in 1914.

In 2001, we went to war in a moment perhaps unique in history -- certainly unique since the Roman Empire. The disparity in skill and firepower on our side was so great that we could anticipate, not only victory, but overwhelming victory. And furthermore, it would be possible to do this with a bare minimum of civilian deaths.

Every civilian death is one of war's tragedies. But compare the U.S. conquest of Afghanistan (which of course was regarded by the chattering class in Europe as a revolting war crime) with the Russian strategy in Kabul or Grozny. The utter superiority of American air power will not last forever. But while it lasts, we have the ability to defeat enemies without destroying nations.

Nothing is certain in war, and I knew that in 2001. But any reasonable check of the balance sheets would show that the U.S. had the ability to carry out its intent, even in the supposed graveyard of conquerors that was Afghanistan.

That didn't stop the doomsayers, of course, and those who were using the word "quagmire" when the war was only hours old. Some people are so eager to see the U.S. in defeat that they are blind. Unfortunately, a great many of those people are writers or commentators in the world media.

Peace is to be cherished. But a clinging to peace when 3,000 of your fellow citizens lie slaughtered in your cities and fields, and the stench of their blood still stains the air -- stewardesses in their uniforms, handing out pillows to sleeping children, getting their throats slit by boxcutters -- to crave only peace in that atmosphere is, I say, a cowardice hardly to be conceived.

And I was raised among Quakers!

The young men of 1914 sought glory and honors and chivalry in their war. I didn't recognize any of that here. I saw a grim determination to punish, and to avenge, and to protect what remained. Those are manly, if dark, qualities.

Based on what I read, most Europeans no longer even recognize those things. Their recommended reaction, for us, was to cut off aid to Israel, hold seminars on "why we deserved this," and maybe file a brief at the World Court in the Hague. They felt a great outpouring of compassion for us, when we were getting slaughtered. The moment we stood up and began to do something about it, they reverted to hating us. As I recall, they looked at us then, in horror, and saw only a nation of sheep. They couldn't have missed the point more completely. They cast their eyes on wolves, and all they saw was sheep.