As Memorial Day approaches, another American kind of defeat is now at hand. And, another monument will be constructed on the Mall.
In 1969, Fort Leonard Wood was one of the many Army bases where basic training occurred for the steady stream of those caught up in conscription by “lottery”. As we trained in a mock Vietnamese village with pop-up targets, most of us knew that the combat would be far more sinister, and that any notion of victory was foolhardy. Instead, we’d be part of Nixon’s “Vietnamization” – a slow, agonizing defeat camouflaged as a strategy. That strategy killed the artist from Kansas City whose bunk was next to mine, a gung-ho kid from Guam who had enlisted, a Gomer Pyle-like farm boy from upstate New York and many others whose names I’ve felt etched in black marble.
American defeats are hauntingly similar. Informed by cultural and political ignorance, we intervene, invade and occupy while denying intelligence that warns against folly. Hubris tells us that our power is unassailable. Paranoia is marketed by politicians to exclude reasoned deliberation, and the greed of those who profit from war or later reconstruction buy into the conflict for as long as it adds to the bottom line.
American defeats are self-inflicted. We fight the wrong wars against illusory foes, thinking the enemy is one when it is another. We assume that our arsenals of smart bombs, stealth aircraft and special forces will vanquish any opponent. We sense ubiquitous peril from all who differ from “us”, and accept that those who build weapons, rush to manage reconstruction projects, or provide private security services are patriots not profiteers.
Iraq momentarily evoked a quick, decisive battlefield victory. But the triumph was illusory and ephemeral. Too soon, 2000 Americans will have died, 12,000 will have been seriously wounded, and additional thousands with psychological or other illness will have required evacuation. Iraqi deaths are now 50-100 per day. The number of coalition members and their troop contributions are ebbing. The frequency and severity of insurgent attacks against U.S., Iraqi or allied assets continue to rise – encouraged not abated by an election and formation of a government. Even the Bush Administration’s National Intelligence Council reported, in early 2005, that global terrorism has been strengthened as it recruits new generations of jihadists to kill and die for charismatic extremists. At the same time, American armed forces can no longer find sufficient recruits to maintain force levels with qualified individuals.
Three and a half years after 9/11, the United States is engaged in a two front ground war (Iraq and Afghanistan), in both cases claiming that elections have demonstrated the righteousness of democracy. Yet these elections have neither halted violence nor unified states. And, the continuing presence of American and “coalition” forces continues to breed and spawn, rather than shock and awe, terrorists.
When Americans withdrew from Vietnam, they did not do so because democracy had been preserved or a timetable was set but because of the unmitigated defeat of the puppet regime that they had created and maintained. Washington decision-makers should contemplate such a scenario in Iraq, before helicopter evacuation of Americans from rooftops of the Green Zone becomes necessary.
America’s weakening global position should accelerate thinking about withdrawal. The United States today has fewer friends than at any time since the end of World War II and its strengths are hemorrhaging. The “insecuring” of America involves the rapid and simultaneous ebbing of national capacities as cultural tolerance is trampled by religious zealotry, political freedom constrained by irrational fear, and financial institutions weakened under the onslaught of massive deficits.
Monuments evoke collective memories of suffering and loss, in victory or defeat. Soon, those who fell during the Iraq War will have their own monument in Washington, DC. But on future Memorial Days, little solace will be felt by a nation made far weaker and less secure in the short span of these five years. Survivors will question, as they did in the last generation, the purpose of sacrifice.
Daniel N. Nelson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, University of New Haven.