Divisions between red and blue America and between rich and poor are well known. But another one, related but not quite identical, exists as well. There is a deep divide between those who honorably live the traditions surrounding war and those who dishonorably capitalize on them, between those who fight wars and those who plan them. This divide, troubling if not infuriating to most veterans, is perhaps even more dangerous than the others.
Venerable beliefs regarding war permeate American life: in professed war aims, news stories from Iraq and Afghanistan, the ageless repartee of soldiers, and tributes we pay to those who do not return. From our nation’s birth not coincidentally in war these sentiments have been with us, providing a cultural basis not only for military service but also for patriotism. War defends home and nation, instills honor and courage. The wisdom of leaders is proven, their fortitude annealed. It establishes continuity through the generations, from Valley Forge to Antietam, the Argonne Forest to Dak To, and beyond. War service is sacred, even redemptive, absolving transgressions, and should one’s blood be shed, imparting lasting honor. War ends injustice and spreads progress.
Drawing from a national reservoir of war traditions is necessary for any armed conflict just or not, in the national interest or elective quagmire. War traditions are vital parts of local community, the armed forces, and national integration. And they must not be used thoughtlessly or in any manner that erodes them.
The breadth and depth of war traditions have varied over American history, waning after the First World War, peaking after the Second, declining again after Vietnam, but returning, at least in parts of America, with the spate of quick small conflicts and the restoration of tradition in the eighties and nineties. We are fortunate they were with us in 2001. But the honorability of later use, when we were told we went to war to protect our nation, end tyranny, and build democracy in the Middle East, is dubious. Noble intents were repeated so insistently, at the outset and for years afterwards, and by such callow politicos, as to invite suspicion.
Not long ago, there was no division between those who plan wars and those who fight them. Wars were embarked upon, usually only reluctantly, by leaders in whom war traditions dwelled. They dwelled in them because of forebears who had served, their own military service, and memories of those, from many social strata, with whom they had shared a hard education. Instilled in them, as deeply as a creed, was empathy for young soldiers’ lives, and it weighed on them before mobilizing war traditions and sending young people, including many of their own family and caste, to their hard educations.
Few observers of social trends have failed to note that war traditions today thrive mainly in working and lower-middle classes and have only atrophied forms in more privileged strata. In the think tanks, campaign offices, and lobbies of Washington, they are dead. Nonetheless, the inhabitants of those bureaus the neo-conservatives foremost among them diligently study war traditions and their utility. They conjure them, repeatedly and seemingly passionately. They invoke these traditions but never lived them, call for war but skillfully avoided serving in one.
Their speechwriters and consultants help them with the appearance of compassion, but the words and affect are hollow. They regard the lives of young soldiers, with whom their upbringings and careers brought little acquaintance and inculcated more than a little condescension, as low-value chips in an immense and abstract game they profess to be masters of Risk and Strategy by other means.
The divide between planners and fighters is more harmful than that dividing red and blue, rich and poor. Indeed, many of our foreign policy troubles stem from the inattention of the public to world affairs and the canniness of adepts in rallying war traditions and channeling them into directions they see fit, irrelevant as they might be to American security. War is too serious to be left to them. And our young people should not be low-value chips in their great games.
They exhort us, from the comfort of Washington, to hold fast to a war with little prospect of progress, let alone victory. Their catch phrases “stay the course,” “see it through,” and “remember the fallen” play on war traditions in order to deflect criticism while they scurry about for more marketable lines and a way to blame others for failure. Presumably they seek something that will keep war traditions intact for later use.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© BRIAN M. DOWNING