"We lost Davy in the Korean War; still don't know what for."
So sings Bette Midler in her song, "Hello in There," adding disturbingly, "doesn't matter any more." Perhaps that's the way some of us feel, but of course it isn't true. It matters a great deal, for us individually and for our society. Listening to those words put in the mouth of an aged mother on my MP3 player while running in the park made me think about war, the ones in which we are engaged today, and those waged in our past.
Taking us into war, all Presidents claim, is the most difficult thing they do. Deciding whether we should follow them in, which plays a huge role in its ultimate success, is equally so. I'm old enough to remember The War which is what we called it without any concern about confusion well into the 1960's. After all Korea, the conflict referenced in Midler's song, was termed a "police action." I was a little kid during WWII which left me with three vivid memories. One was VJ-Day celebrated on a summer afternoon by the whole neighborhood which coincided with my recovery from strep throat, the most traumatic and threatening illness of my childhood. Were it not for the recent availability of Penicillin, I might not have survived. The second was Della Hayes, our beloved housekeeper, beating reddish food coloring into margarine at our kitchen table to make it look a little more like the butter we couldn't get in a time of war. Finally there was that black "A" sticker affixed to the rear window of our Chevy denoting the preferred gasoline allocation given my clergyman father in a time of severe rationing. Most people had "C" stickers on their windows. Memories of celebration and of sacrifice.
How different in this time of war. Zabars, Fairway, Whole Foods or any supermarket across America chockfull of food, plenty of butter (even if some of us can't eat it any more). "A" or "C" stickers? Forget it, the garage under my New York apartment building is crowded with gas-guzzling SUVs (oh to have a Hummer to navigate those pot-holed city streets). The only restrictions on plentiful gasoline is how much we can afford to buy at what we perceive to be exorbitant prices (still a fraction of what others pay around the world. The little ones in my building will have very different memories of war than my own, probably no memories at all because there are no signposts. The war going on right now, even with 9/11, doesn't touch most of our collective lives. There is no sacrifice involved, not one we experience personally. Only a fraction of American families have sons, daughters, fathers, mothers or siblings at war and among those of us in the middle and upper classes, fraction would be an overstatement. There isn't even a draft to evade.
But let me not wax nostalgic, so unbecoming in connection with the ugliness of war, any war. While the cost of WWII was immense, it was a hugely successful effort, not inconsequentially because it had full public support. It isn't that some isolationists didn't oppose it early on and, in doing so, delay our entry. It is that once in, the citizenry gave its wholehearted support. No one was ambivalent about the enemy or the rightness of our cause for which we were willing to personally sacrifice, for however long it took. That wasn't true with Korea. Perhaps we were just tired of fighting and had not yet been fully convinced of the Communist menace (these had been our allies). In any event, the eloquent Adlai Stevenson went down to defeat when war hero Ike promised to go to Korea and end the conflict. We wanted out. Our discomfort was brought to new heights with Viet Nam, which in many ways was simply an extension, albeit delayed, of the same anti-Communist hostilities in Asia. The opposition took some time to build, but ultimately the war became an unwanted and discredited cause. In some ways, we still haven't recovered from it.
There is a military lesson in all this. We won WWII with which the public concurred. We failed in Korea about which we were ambivalent and more so in Viet Nam where we rose up in angry protest. Harry Truman, FDR's successor won the election most immediately following WWII. Stevenson, the incumbent party standard-bearer, paid the price for Korea at the polls in 1952 as did Lyndon Johnson (who couldn't even run) and Hubert Humphrey for Viet Nam in 1968. Successful wars need public support. Wars fought for questionable causes have bad endings, militarily and politically.
All of this brings me to the unprecedented situation today, the duality of war with what is clearly fractured support presenting a real military and political conundrum. Few of us would question the reality of the global terrorist threat and consequently the War on Terrorism. In that we are one, much as we were in WWII. The other war is more reminiscent of Korea and Viet Nam. The "why" we went to war in Iraq has been muddled by the mixed messages of the very Administration that advocated it. The ever changing rationale: the threat of (ultimately elusive) WMD's, links to Al Qaeda (unsubstantiated) , freeing what may be considered an arbitrarily selected group of oppressed (there are so many around the world), bringing democracy to an unruly region, and the ever present elephant in the room — huge oil reserves, makes for a nation divided. It's hard to define for what cause and reason all these young kids are dying or being damaged for life. Knowing our limited attention span and how well we have been trained to avoid complexities, the two very different wars are being portrayed as of the same cloth. That is, excuse the expression, a real stretch. Absent full support, not to mention a pretty well defined and understandable cause around which we can collectively rally, history suggests a problematic prognosis.
From that perspective, even if we fail in a foreign war of questionable purpose, it is unlikely to do us long term damage. Certainly not for those of us who are risking and sacrificing absolutely nothing, not even a little butter or gasoline. It's ugly, tragic, but in the scheme of things, sadly inconsequential. Losing the other war, the real war about which we have no doubt and where the enemy isn't armed with phantom weapons, but with committed human time bombs of real destruction, could be disastrous. Losing that war could claim life as we have grown to know it. If there was any time in which we needed focus and unambiguous purpose it is now. Duality, mixing metaphors, won't do it. It could, in fact, do us in.