by Joseph Sobran
Old newspapers sometimes poignantly remind us of how much excitement was created by yesterday’s events, personalities, controversies, and fears that have already come to seem unimportant. As we now say, “What was that all about?” Did “that” ever really matter in the first place?
This is most tragically the case with war. Wars mark peaks of excitement when they occur. In its own day, World War I – “the Great War” – seemed of epic significance. Today it’s hard to remember why it happened or what good anyone thought would come of it. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II was painted as a monster by British propaganda, most of it false, but today he seems a relatively civilized ruler, especially compared with what came later. The cost of the war that stopped him, roughly 17 million lives, seems absurdly disproportionate to any harm he might have done if left unhindered.
This is not to defend Wilhelm II. It’s only to say that if he had been allowed to dominate Europe, his empire, however deplorable, certainly would never have matched the Great War itself in destructiveness.
The Great War was not followed by a Great Peace. Woodrow Wilson led the United States into it, foolishly promising just that: “a war to end all wars.” Instead, the bitter peace settlement of Versailles soon led to another war so much worse that it now sounds quaint to speak of “the Great War.” World War II was followed by even more wars and brought the world into the age of nuclear terror.
All this might have been averted if Wilson had heeded the counsel of Washington and Jefferson against American intervention in Europe’s wars. He should have treated Wilhelm II as Europe’s regional problem.
But since Wilson, American presidents have almost forgotten the very concept of a regional problem. One local war after another has been turned into a strategic challenge, requiring American military intervention.
Instead of seeing World War II for the colossal blunder it was, we have made it the model for further intervention. The story must be constantly retold, its propaganda constantly reheated as “the lessons of history.” Few really ask what that war was “all about.” Glib analogies with it seem to lend meaning and purpose to other wars.
But Franklin Roosevelt’s desire to stop Hitler at all costs destroyed any balance of power in Europe, requiring his successors to dominate Europe, at enormous cost and risk, to prevent the complete Soviet domination he had fatuously encouraged. This in turn led the United States to intervene in other local wars, mistaking every local Communist insurgency for a global threat. Intervention, in many forms, became a reflex.
Even after the Cold War finally ended and the Soviet Union ceased to be, every local bully was seen as a new Hitler, and therefore a global menace. Nowhere was this habit taken to such an extreme as in Panama, which the United States invaded under the first President Bush in 1989 in order to overthrow Manuel Noriega, who was easily ousted and somehow convicted in an American court, so that he still resides in an American prison. Are we safer now?
Soon after the terrible Noriega was vanquished, the same President Bush found another new Hitler in Iraq, which had grabbed Kuwait. This latest new Hitler, Saddam Hussein, was said to threaten “American vital interests,” variously identified as Arabian oil, the integrity of existing borders, and “jobs, jobs, jobs.” But this time Bush stopped short of conquering the country and capturing its mini-Hitler, disappointing the more extreme hawks and leaving a global menace his son would ultimately have to confront.
Between the Bushes, who might be unkindly described as “Dumb and Dumber,” Bill Clinton spotted yet another Hitler in Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, a country that survived as an odd relic of World War I. Of all the wars of the twentieth century, Clinton’s rivals the Great War itself in provoking the question, What was that all about? But it was quickly forgotten, and Clinton is already remembered, contemptuously, as a too-reluctant warrior.
The second Bush saw the 9/11 attacks as his chance to deal with his father’s unfinished Hitler, Saddam Hussein. As ever, World War II provided the template. But this time such novelties as preemptive war and regime change were introduced as American policies.
Today, with Saddam in custody and his regime destroyed, the war continues for reasons that are not entirely … well, what is this all about?
© 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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