by ProfDave, ©2021
(May 27, 2021) — Lincoln was a poor prophet. He said we wouldn’t remember what he said, but we would remember what those two armies did at Gettysburg. Ask the average American today what happened at Gettysburg: they will say, “the Gettysburg address.” One more instance of the pen being mightier than the sword.
What is it that makes an otherwise sane man willing to lay down his life for his country? What kind of insanity does it take to be a warrior, anyway? I’m not talking about a military career or a barracks life as such. There are certain rewards in that line of work, and the camaraderie of living together in close cooperation and adventure that fulfills something deep in the masculine psyche. The life has some appeal –“join the navy and see the world” – but actually going over the top? Battle is not a football game. People get blown to bits. It makes no sense economically and to find it pleasurable is sick. Why would anybody do that? No wonder Lincoln had so much trouble finding a general who would actually fight.
Most of us would fight if someone were trying to kill us, I guess. You sign up for the National Guard to pay for your education. You get orders to the Middle East and obey them, because you don’t want to become a fugitive. Somebody shoots at you and of course you shoot back. In the Navy, you go where the ship goes, etc. In the 17th century men (recruited by force from the dregs of society) fought in close formation because they were more afraid of their officers behind them on horseback with drawn sabers than of the enemy in front of them. A great deal of modern military training endeavors to make a person respond to orders without thinking about the personal consequences – let alone full disclosure. But you would fight, too, to defend your home, your family, and your way of life – if you felt threatened enough.
America is not Europe. We have not endured centuries – millennia – of warfare in our streets and fields. Our houses and cities have not been destroyed by catapults, rebuilt and destroyed by cannons, rebuilt and destroyed by bombs, and rebuilt again. We haven’t seen foreign troops in our streets since the 18th century. To say that a Marine half-way around the world is defending our freedom is, in some sense, an abstraction. Was all that bloodshed for our liberty or for the “military industrial complex” or the foreign policy of this or that party? After all, there have been noisy anti-war movements around just about every American conflict. And they had a point. We could have brought the troops home and hidden behind our “splendid isolation.”
Pearl Harbor and 911 were different. We were caught up in the moment of outrage, felt threatened, and declared war without thinking twice. But we didn’t have to declare war on Germany and Italy, nor send troops to Afghanistan, let alone Iraq. Our quarrel was with Japan and Al Qaida. What we did was not defending our homes (directly), but carrying out a definite foreign policy, sending servicemen and women thousands of miles away from their homes. Is there such a thing as laying down your life for your country indirectly?
For different reasons, most of those involved in both those wars believed in their cause. While it was the Japanese who attacked us threatening Hawaii and (conceivably) the West Coast, the Fascist empire threatened the heart of Western Civilization. Roosevelt and his advisers were convinced that Hitler’s ambitions were unlimited. Should he succeed in absorbing Europe, American homes and freedoms would indeed be threatened. For this, most American men were willing (though not necessarily happy) to be placed in harm’s way.
The threat to American security and freedom by Islamic extremists is just as real, but the appropriate response is a lot less obvious. Occupying Kabul and Baghdad made no difference (how about Mecca?) and it’s hard to get suicide bombers to surrender unconditionally. It is a judgment call whether American blood spilled in West Asia will secure the safety of the American way of life. It could be argued that the whole “war on terror” thing is only making us less free. But “freedom” and “security” – for America first, but also for Iraq and Afghanistan – are certainly what the troops were dying for, whether it worked or not. We should give them credit for their intentions and be grateful.
In a way, Vietnam and Korea were analogous in one respect. Real threat – questionable response. Nobody attacked the continental US. Seoul and Saigon are nowhere near America, though Havana was. But there was an “evil empire” perceived behind these conflicts. The reality of the cold war has been easily forgotten. ICBMs with nuclear warheads were targeted at major American cities. Nuclear destruction of all human life was all too possible. There was a global civil war going on between ideologies and ways of life. They said they would “bury” us. We practiced hiding under our desks at school, built bomb shelters, and collected emergency supplies. No one knew that the Soviet system would collapse under its own weight in 1989.
Back in the day a lot of people disagreed with our foreign policy response, especially in Vietnam. Many of us sincerely agreed that subversion had to be confronted and freedom upheld anywhere in the world where communism threatened – “because all men are brothers.” Arguably, the American posture of alliances and intervention to contain Soviet expansion and Communist subversion succeeded in more cases than it failed and promoted more freedom than despotism. Others suspected the motives of “anyone over thirty” and objected to being drafted for a cause irrelevant to their interests. The universities taught an attractive and politically correct form of Marxism and they said we should mind our own business and let the rest of the world mind theirs. Americans in Korea and Vietnam laid down their lives for the assumption that freedom and the American way of life were at stake. Sadly, it is not any clearer that the cause was advanced in those conflicts than in the present wars. But, we should give them credit for their intentions and be grateful.
We should be grateful. What would America – or any other society – be like without a minimum proportion of people who were – and are – willing to lay it all down for the rest of us? Peaceniks, anti-patriots, and trippers love to imagine a world without armies and war. Trouble is, all it takes is one lunatic with one band of excess males to devastate the utopian village. Imagine a city without police! There’s a story about that in the Biblical book of Judges: Sodom. Strangers get gang-raped in the public square. Rather, imagine a world in which all hearts were in tune with God! Now that would work.
So we need military forces. They aren’t perfect. They run amuck in their spare time. Even in World War II our allies complained that the Yanks were “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” A little too much testosterone going on. They shoot civilians and each other by mistake. There are some bad apples. Occasionally things get out of hand and there are real atrocities. Military discipline contradicts all the ideals of democracy and military intelligence is an oxymoron. They’re human and war is a nasty business.
Those I served with in Vietnam were pretty ordinary working-class boys who joined the Navy to escape the draft – with a sprinkling of older “lifers.” Though I didn’t see them under fire, they did their jobs and some really cared about the locals. Today’s military personnel are a lot more professional, older, better educated, more technological. But just about all of them, underneath the spit (and sometimes polish), were and are patriots. When the chips are down, they do incredibly sacrificial things. At some level, they believe in the transcendent value of their country, their flag, and their uniform. They believe in America – and think it’s worth risking life and limb for. Let’s hope there are enough of them to keep this great country going – and of us loyal law-abiding civilians to make it worthwhile.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.