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Staying power: then and now
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This thing in Iraq, and the one in Afghanistan as well, has about gotten to the point where every last one of us is going to have to think it through again. Each of us needs to start from scratch and think these matters through completely. Next, then, we're going to have to do something, individually and corporately, that maybe all of us are a little uncomfortable considering: we're going to have to make a personal commitment to be involved with it, and stick with it until what we feel the correct course of action to be has been accomplished.

I'm just thinking out loud here, so bear with me as my thought patterns ramble sometimes before I can get back to telling you why I feel the way I do. But, in a nutshell, I feel strongly that, given the seriousness of the commitment our nation embarked upon when invading a sovereign nation and toppling the government thereof, America needs to see the issue through to a satisfactory conclusion. And that's just the way it is: in my view, it's completely unacceptable for America to cut and run from either Iraq or Afghanistan.

I have a feeling that the vast majority of folks out there agree with me, but I also feel that not a lot of folks want to think about that Iraq thing on a daily basis. Even fewer folks want to consider that Afghanistan thing, to the extent that it rarely comes up in casual conversation, even appearing on the news only when an incident involving American personnel occurs.

I've been thinking about why that is. I've been thinking how it can be possible for America's sons, daughters, dads and moms, as well as other relatives and friends to be fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan while the rest of us are casually pursuing life as we know it in fast-food, instant-gratification America. And the incongruity of it all has finally manifested itself in me to the point where it is spilling out in this column.

I think the major sticking point of this problem is that the vast majority of American citizens have never had to make any kind of active commitment to the Iraq/Afghanistan War. And although we're coming up on a presidential election year and folks who oppose the course President Bush took would have us forget it, the truth is that the current administration did all the right things in laying the groundwork for America's inclusion in a military coalition officially approved by the United Nations, which despite its many shortcomings does serve as the only official nexus for world governments.

I think most Americans thought, given our experience from having watched the first Desert Storm campaign on television that our technology would bring about a quick and bloodless - at least for the American forces - conclusion to any war. Hey, I remember watching a high-ranking general show a video of a laser-guided "smart bomb" enter the fourth floor of his counterpart's headquarters in Iraq. The bomb hit exactly where it was intended to hit, and the Iraqi military unit was destroyed completely. The thing that bothered me a little was that while he was describing it, the general snickered a little and made light of the fact that his counterpart was no more.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for us winning, and I am a firm believer in the validity of the definition of war given by the scourge of my native state, William Tecumseh Sherman, who said "war is hell."

But it bothered me a little that night, watching the news, that the general briefing the press had a cavalier attitude when watching death being visited upon other humans. Our respect for human life was present in that the "smart bomb" targeted only the combatant forces and sought to minimize collateral damage to civilians. But to trivialize the commitment and courage of one's opponent, who if he had access to the same technology and military superiority might well have been able to turn the table, seemed to me to show a callous disregard for life as we know it.

And, methinks, incidents like that press conference have, over the years, combined to create in the vast majority of Americans a false belief that through technology we can fight a war any time, anywhere, and win a swift conclusion with a bare minimum of loss of American life, and with absolutely no disruption to the American lifestyle at home.

Well, that's just not the way war happens, is it?

As fantastic as this next statement will sound, Americans with any sense of history know that the hard part of every war we've been involved with has not been so much the winning of the battles and the bringing about of the cessation of hostilities, but the rebuilding of the world after the conclusion of those wars.

Let me offer some quick thoughts to substantiate that statement...

The bottom line regarding continuing racial problems between black and white contemporary Americans in Deep South society, as well as the truth of why our public schools have deteriorated so badly, is that the rebuilding of America following the War of Northern Aggression was handled so badly. Had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated, I have no doubt that things would have proceeded along a vastly different course, but that's neither here nor there. The truth is that Reconstruction, as it was instituted, followed by the virtual rebellion of the South throughout the Jim Crow days, resulted in the loss of over 100 years which could have been used to heal the hurt and help all people of the nation move forward, together.

But it didn't happen. When Southern white folks were able to regain political power, they visited retribution upon black folks and the rest we know as our 20th century civil rights history.

Following World War I, the victors exited Europe as quickly as possible, leaving Germany's work force and economic system decimated. The door was wide open for anyone with vision and halfway decent plan to seize power, and 20 years later Adolph Hitler provided lasting proof to the world of the error in winning a war and not sticking around to fix things up afterward.

Still the world did not heed that lesson. Following World War II, only when the Russians started taking over all the real estate in Europe did America come up with The Marshall Plan and The Truman Doctrine to provide economic and military support for nations who called for it to resist the forces of Communism.

Listen, now.

It took nearly 50 years for it to work, but eventually the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall toppled, and those two things would never have happened unless America followed the commitment to make it happen.

The Korean War came along. The Vietnam War came along. Americans were inculcated with the need to "play war by the rules" as determined by the United Nations. The bad guys could come south across their respective dividing lines of latitude to visit hurt upon the good guys, but the good guys had to follow the rules and could not cross those same parallels of latitude to visit retribution upon the bad guys.

And thus was born the day of war which required no commitment from the rank-and-file of the vast American citizenry. Yes, we sent our sons and, later, daughters off to fight in those "campaigns," or "conflicts" which the government would never classify as a full-fledged, all out war. But the Americans at home felt no sacrifice, no commitment and saw no daily interruption in what for those at home continued as normalcy.

And that, my friends, is what I see as being the chief problem with our contemporary situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're not called upon, given the fantastic monetary engine which is our free enterprise economic system, to make any individual commitment to the war. Only those of us who have lost loved ones or friends have felt any kind of loss at all. The vast majority of us feel regret and a moment or two of sadness when we hear of another explosion claiming the lives of American servicemen "over there," but the main thing we feel is irritation at having to actually think about the war at all.

We want it to go away. We want it to be over. We want it to be bloodless and neat and clean and solved by technology.

And that's not the way it is, nor ever will it be so.

We won the battles. The fifth-largest army in the world just up and disappeared, melting into the population of Iraq and Afghanistan simply by changing their clothes. But the fight continues, and will continue, for as many years as it takes to inculcate the idea of democracy and freedom of choice into the thought patterns of the entire populations of those nations.

And that ain't gonna happen overnight.

It took nearly 50 years the last time we tried it, and that was with the tacit and active approval of all Americans. Right now the jury is still out on what all Americans think we should do.

So I'm telling you now: each of us has to think the matter through, completely, to its conclusion. And then we have to act accordingly, as we individually believe.

And the time for it, dear reader, is now.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.