Around 10:00 AM one very pleasant morning in late August 1977, I entered the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I was among a fairly large group of teenage boys adorned with moppy bleach blond hair, T-shirts with popular Hawaiian logos, flip flops, and wide leg pants tinged with red from the soil of the island of Lanai.
We had just spent a grueling summer planting pineapple on the island, which at that time was the largest pineapple plantation in the world. (Due to labor costs, most pineapple operations have moved out to the Pacific Rim. The sparsely populated island is now home to two five-star resorts as well as a number of vacation condos.) As reward for our summer of labor, we were privileged to devote a significant portion of our earnings to spend a week as tourists on three popular Hawaiian islands (Kauai, Hawaii, and Oahu). The well managed tour took us to a variety of popular tourist haunts, including Pearl Harbor.
The atmosphere as I walked into the memorial, which straddles the sunken battleship USS Arizona, was something like walking into a cathedral or a shrine. Even the crassest youth in the group sensed something sacred and behaved respectfully. With the feeling of light ocean spray in the air, we gathered around the opening in the floor to look into the water at the deck of battleship below. Many tossed flowers or leis into the water. Although I had been taught the history of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I little understood what it really meant. But that morning I sensed something very special.
No to War
Americans were very disillusioned with foreign wars and entanglements in the aftermath of World War I. Europe seemed to be continuously beset with intractable problems that the U.S. could little affect. Hitler’s rise to power and successful aggression in the 1930s only seemed to bolster the sentiment that the precious blood of our valiant soldiers had been spilt in vain. Almost everything that had been achieved in WWI was lost in the space of a few years. As the decade of the 30s concluded, Americans could see the specter of all out war in Europe. But they wanted nothing to do with it.
President Roosevelt had maintained a firm stance of staying out of Europe’s problems during his first term and most of his second term in office. But when our ally Great Britain was endangered, he felt a need to act. He began by offering relatively minor aid, but this grew over time until FDR eventually promised all aid short of direct involvement in the war. For his changing stance, FDR was harangued by a number of isolationist Republicans in Congress.
Willingness to Help Allies
The isolationists had valid concerns. They felt they were standing on principle. They felt they were backed by the Constitution, although, others interpreted the isolationists' most cherished constitutional passages differently. But the isolationists had a tin ear for public sentiment. Commercial radio broadcasting had become ubiquitous by 1940. Few homes lacked a radio. Americans had experienced WWI via printed media, but radio now brought the sounds of live warfare in Europe directly into American living rooms. During the 1940 presidential campaign season there was a sea change in Americans’ attitudes as innocent Britains were bombed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
FDR’s 1940 opponent was the highly popular Wendell Willkie, who had been a Democrat and an FDR supporter only a few years earlier. Willkie had won the GOP nomination despite the isolationists in the party. Instead of campaigning against Willkie, FDR focused on the GOP isolationists in Congress, who seemed increasingly out of touch with America’s needs. People sensed that if Hitler was not stopped in Europe, 3000 miles of Atlantic Ocean would not stop him from eventually attacking the U.S. Although FDR sweated out election night at his Hyde Park home, he became the only U.S. president to win a third term by taking 54.7% of the popular vote and 449 of 530 electoral votes. Following his loss, Willkie magnanimously sacrificed his own ambitions to support FDR’s aid policies in the interest of the nation.
Devotion to Victory
Americans were willing to help, but they weren’t willing to go to war. That all changed on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, when Japan launched a sneaky attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had planned and trained for this attack for almost a year. The U.S. was unprepared for the attack, which killed 2,403, wounded 1,178, and crippled U.S. military capabilities in the Pacific. Among the five battleships destroyed, the USS Arizona’s destruction was the most spectacular. Japanese bombing was precise enough to cause a massive explosion. 1,177 of the Pear Harbor’s dead were associated with the demise of the Arizona.
Americans were stunned. Most supported with steely resolve Congress’ declaration of war on Japan the day after the attack. This resolve only deepened when Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. three days later. The next four years would require great personal and national sacrifice. World War II had begun.
Between the grim day of 12/7/41 and the conclusive end of hostilities in 1945, many mistakes were made. Many suffered. In hindsight it is obvious that many suffered needlessly. Among the mistakes made is the infamy of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans to be incarcerated in internment camps. Many still argue that carpet bombing in Germany was unnecessary and immoral. Many military operations were mishandled. The egos of some generals hampered operations. Some still have qualms about using nuclear bombs against Japan. It was not always apparent that the U.S. and its allies would win the war. But from the outset the general consensus was that complete victory was the only acceptable outcome.
Although much work was required once victory was achieved, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who had won the war. Insurgent groups continued to harass allied troops, but these efforts were short lived. By the 1960s it became apparent that the aggressor nations had actually fared quite well in the aftermath of the horrific war, thanks to well managed reconstruction efforts.
A New Day of Infamy, A New War
12/7/41 did indeed live in infamy in the minds of most Americans. But as the generation most impacted by this event aged, younger Americans had decreasing levels of appreciation for it. Almost six decades later another day of infamy occurred on 9/11/2001, when radical Islamic terrorists attacked innocents on American soil, killing nearly 3000. Americans faced the grim situation with steely resolve. But unlike 60 years earlier, identification of the culprits and of the appropriate response was much more complex and nuanced.
Almost six years later we find ourselves at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. There is much controversy about how and why we got to this point. There is much controversy about how we are presently faring in these conflicts and the overall significance of these conflicts. Some say that the Iraq War is a study in winning the war but losing the peace through improper management.
While it is interesting and valuable to study and discuss the historical elements of these conflicts, there are much more important questions at stake. What outcome do we really want to achieve? Why? Can the desired outcome be reasonably achieved? If not, what is the most reasonable desirable outcome? Given an agreed upon desirable outcome, what course of action is most likely to get us from where we are now to that desired outcome?
In my estimation, we do not have anything near consensus on the answers to these questions. It seems that we as a republic have never really had a clear vision of what we hope to achieve in Afghanistan and Iraq. I would argue that this was the same problem we experienced in Vietnam: a lack of vision. We didn’t generally know what we wanted to achieve. Like then, we muddle around now because we don’t know for sure what we want.
Americans have shown time and time again that we are generally willing to make sacrifices and to use military force when we have a clear focus. In WWII, everyone on all sides had a solid understanding of the overarching U.S. goal. In the current conflicts; not so much. I’m not saying that President Bush (along with many others that are better at communicating) hasn’t articulated a desired outcome. Rather, I suggest that Americans:
A) Think the vision is too muddled.
B) Do not buy this vision.
C) Do not think we’re pursuing a course of action calculated to achieve this vision.
D) All of the above.
It’s no secret that major mistakes have been made in the management of these conflicts, particularly with respect to Iraq. Significant mistakes have been made in pretty much every war. History shows that Americans are very forgiving of mistakes as long as it is perceived that we are making progress on the right path. Americans are good at doggedly moving toward a clear goal. But focus falls off if the goal looks like some ethereal cloud. How will we know whether we’ve hit the goal or not? How can we achieve victory when we don’t know what it looks like?
Despite all of the current maneuvering of congressional Democrats, and regardless of who becomes our next president, we will likely have military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq for years to come. The big question is what they will be doing there?
Americans need rock solid goals for these conflicts. They don’t want to run away, but they do want to have a hard and clear understanding of what they are working for. And then Americans need to know that we are doing what it takes to achieve the goal. Any leader that provides less than this will not enjoy broad public support.
As I look at the current field of significant contenders for the 2008 presidential election from both parties, I don’t see even one that is anywhere close to giving Americans a solid goal or demonstrating a willingness to do what it takes to achieve success with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq. Some argue that Giuliani is the best bet for this. Maybe he’s the best in the field, but that’s not actually saying much. It seems to me that regardless of who wins, we will still be muddling around over there for years to come without any discernable victory.