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How to commemorate those who have laid down their lives for their country? Memorial Day wasn’t much of an issue in my childhood. 100 years after the Civil War, most white Southerners still considered this a Yankee holiday. Robert E. Lee’s birthday, a state holiday across much of the South, got more press. White folks didn’t go much to events like the annual commemoration of the Union prisoners who died in the Confederate POW camp in my father’s hometown of Florence, SC.
For me that changed when I went north to Pundit High School at the age of 13 on a full scholarship. Memorial Day was a BIG event there; the 200 boys in the student body spent many spring evenings learning to march around the campus in preparation for the town’s Memorial Day parade out to the cemetery where the names of all the town’s war dead going back to the Revolution were read out. A combination of precocious anti-Vietnam feeling and, I think, culture shock at the vast difference between Pundit High and everything else I had known led me to the conclusion that on conscientious grounds I should not march.
The best way, I argued to my put-upon parents and long suffering Headmaster, to commemorate the war dead was to stop the militaristic displays that made new wars and new deaths more likely. The school made it clear: it was march or go home. My parents told me it was my decision to make; I thought hard and eventually marched that spring and every spring thereafter until the time came to move on. I wasn’t quite finished being adolescent about this national holiday. The school band provided musical accompaniment as we marched, and I wrote French lyrics to the tune “Over There” which many of us sang to complain about the school food. “Pommes de terre,” it began, “pommes de terre; Içi on ne jamais mange que pommes de terre.”
Je ne regrette rien, but L’Académie Française has yet to call.
I’ve always thought that to march was the right choice, more than ever now that I’ve moved past the pacifism of my teen self. But the question of how to commemorate those who have given their lives for our country is still a vexing one — and especially now, as the US role in Iraq winds down and we think about the 4,434 Americans who died there to date, the 32,074 who will carry the wounds they suffered there, and the hundreds of thousands who will carry the memories of their service through their lives.
After the Vietnam war, a divisive conflict that tore this country apart and failed to prevent Communist triumph in Vietnam and genocide in Cambodia, the country groped its way toward a compromise way to remember the dead and honour the veterans. Regardless of the merits of the war, those who did honorable service in it or laid down their lives at their country’s call, deserve our respect and our thanks.
That was better than nothing, and a way to reduce the damage that the memory of Vietnam did in the US long after the shooting stopped; there are signs that we are aiming to repeat a compromise of that kind when it comes to the war in Iraq. Those who opposed the war and those who supported it can unite in tribute to the loyalty, the courage and the sacrifice of those who served there.
That is something, but it is not enough. The Americans who served, suffered and died in Iraq — and who still serve there today — changed the world and won a great and a difficult victory. No account of their service, no commemoration of the dead that ignores or conceals this vital truth is enough.
To celebrate a momentous victory in Iraq is not to acknowledge that President Bush was right to go into Iraq when and how he did; it is not to justify or excuse the years of poor choices and strategic fumbling before the President found the generals who knew how to win. (One can say the same thing, of course, about President Lincoln. Like most great leaders, he failed his way to triumph.) I supported the invasion because I believed Colin Powell’s solemn assurances about weapons of mass destruction; I continued to support the war despite the absence of such weapons and the chaos and incompetence attending the occupation because I believed that vital issues were at stake in Iraq, that defeat was unacceptable, that victory was not nearly as unattainable as the hand wringing, pseudo-smart choruses of despairing ex-hawks so cluelessly and insistently asserted, and that if nothing else we had a duty to the Iraqis and to ourselves not to leave the country without giving it a fair chance to shape the future for itself.
Because of President Bush’s steadfastness, because of the military genius of General Petraeus (or Betray Us as the keen wits and intellects at Moveon.org so memorably called him as, to their frustration and fury, the evidence of victory began to appear) and his associates, because of the professionalism and honour of American officers, and above all because of the dogged courage, patriotism and humanity of the extraordinary men and women who served in the ranks, we won the war.
That victory was much more than a dignified escape from a sticky predicament. The coalition victory in Iraq was a historical turning point that may well turn out to be comparable to the cannonade of Valmy. It changed the course of world history. We have not done justice to those who gave their lives in Iraq until we recognise the full dimensions of their achievement.
The story of Iraq has yet to be told. It is too politically sensitive for the intelligentsia to handle just yet; passions need to cool before the professors and the pundits who worked themselves into paroxysms of hatred and disdain for the Bush administration can come to grips with how wrongheaded they’ve been. It took decades for the intelligentsia to face the possibility that the cretinous Reagan-monster might have, um, helped win the Cold War, and even now they haven’t asked themselves any tough questions about the Left’s blind hatred of the man who did more than any other human being to save the world from nuclear war.
It may take that long for the truth about the war in Iraq to dawn, but dawn it will. America’s victory in Iraq broke the back of Al-Qaeda and left Osama bin Laden’s dream in ruins. He died a defeated fanatic in his Abbotabad hideaway; his dream was crushed in the Mesopotamian flatlands where he swore it would win.
Osama’s goal was to launch the Clash of Civilizations against the West. He would be Captain Islam, fighting against the Crusader-in-Chief George W. Bush. By his purity, wisdom, daring and above all by his special knowledge of the hidden ways of God, Captain Islam would crush and humiliate the evil Bush-fiend and unite the Muslim world behind the Truth. Osama would complete at a spiritual level the mission his father undertook on the physical plane. His father’s construction company rebuilt and modernized the ancient holy city of Mecca; Osama would rebuild and restore the entire Muslim world.
The 9/11 attacks propelled Osama to the historical height he sought: in the minds of many he had become a caliph-in-waiting, the fierce servant of God whose claims to leadership were vindicated by the dramatic success of his plans. Angry young people across the Islamic world, frustrated by a host of frustrations and privations, wondered if this was the charismatic, God-aided figure who would overturn the world order and lead Islam to its old place on the commanding heights of the world.
9/11 was the trumpet, Iraq was the test. The US invaded an Arab country, overthrew its government, and found itself condemned to the hardest task in international politics: nation building under hostile fire. More, the US had taken a country run by its Sunni minority and put power into the hands of an inexperienced and fractious Shi’a majority. Then the US occupation began to fail: the government institutions fell apart, there was no security in country or in town, the economy went into free fall, and basic services like electricity and health failed across the land. The provocations were serious and real; the Americans were clumsy and awkward. US checkpoints and raids were humiliating and degrading; the scalding Abu Ghraib scandal was a propagandist’s dream come true. The ham-handed diplomacy and tongue-tied defence of American policy from Washington created a sense of rising, unstoppable global opposition to Bush’s War.
There could be no more favourable terrain for Al-Qaeda. From all over the world, young people intoxicated on radical Islam and hatred of the United States rushed to defend Sunni Iraq from the devil’s own alliance of crusaders, Zionists and schismatics. Across the embattled Sunni heartland in central Iraq, the fighters were welcomed as reinforcements by desperate tribal militias and former Iraqi army groups fighting the monstrous new order.
So favourable was the terrain for our enemies and so difficult the tasks we faced that the shrewdest critics of the Iraq war argued that the US had in effect fallen into an Al-Qaeda trap. Bush had blindly and recklessly rushed forward into a quagmire; Iraq would be America’s Dien Bien Phu, a new hopeless colonial war. It was our Algeria, a second Vietnam, a well-deserved comeuppance for imperial arrogance. Osama baited the trap, and Bush rushed in to his doom.
For roughly three years America writhed in the toils of our predicament in Iraq. The Democratic establishment had supported the war. Some leading Democrats did so out of conviction, some out of a political calculation that no other stand was viable in the post 9/11 atmosphere. Now the grand panjandrums of the Democratic Party, one after another, made their pilgrimage to Canossa. Some came to believe and perhaps more came to say that the war was lost and that their original backing for it had been a mistake.
Well do I remember the many impassioned statements in those dark years by leading politicians and pundits that the war was lost, lost, irretrievably lost. It was over now, they wailed on television and in print. The Iraqi government was a farce and could never take hold. These clowns made Diem look like Charles de Gaulle. We had no option but to get out as quickly as possible. On and on rolled the great choir of doom, smarter than the rest of us, deeper thinkers, capable of holding more complex thoughts behind their furrowed brows.
Now they have glibly moved on to other subjects; the mostly complicit media is helping us all to forget just how wrong — and how intolerant and moralistic — so many people were about the ‘lost’ war.
While the politicians washed their hands and hung up white flags, and while the press lords gibbered and foamed, the brass kept their heads and the troops stood tall. And gradually, a miracle happened. America started winning the war.
We won it the one way the critics could not imagine: we won the contest with Al-Qaeda for Iraqi Sunni support. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq had seen the Americans at their worst: culturally insensitive and arrogant invaders; failed economic planners and bad managers; cruel abusers of prisoners; incompetent protectors. They saw Al-Qaeda at its best: God-fearing freedom fighters travelling great distances and taking great personal risks to uphold the cause of the believers against the foreign oppressor.
Yet chief after chief, tribe after tribe and town after town, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq made a fateful decision. They chose America over Al-Qaeda. They took the measure of America’s officers and combat troops, and they took the measure of Al-Qaeda’s ‘jihadis’. They saw us warts and all — and decided that the future lay with America rather than the woman-stoning bomb nuts. Our troops would secure the safety of their families better than Al-Qaeda could. Despite the immense religious and cultural differences between us, democratic America stood closer to their values than fanatical Al-Qaeda.
That decision by the Sunni Arabs of Iraq is what left Al-Qaeda gutted and floundering. That is what turned it from strategic threat to abiding nuisance. That is what set the limits of Al-Qaeda’s appeal and turned Osama bin Laden from the aspiring caliph of a great Islamic wave to (apparently) a porn-watching recluse in a Pakistani garrison town.
The Sunni Arabs made that decision, but it was the competence, honour and courage of the Americans on the ground whose conduct won them over. Suspicious Sunnis, still burning with resentment over foreign invasion and loss of status to the Shi’a, watched our troops fight Al-Qaeda, watched young Americans lay down their lives to protect Muslim children and old people from suicide bombers. They learned to believe that American officers keep their promises and deliver on their commitments. They saw that an army composed of people from many religions (and some holding no religious belief of any kind) lives up to the ideals of Islamic combat better than an army of fanatical zealots. They also saw for themselves to what barbarities and absurdities Al-Qaeda’s parody of Islam can lead.
Al-Qaeda’s rejection by Sunni Iraq punctured the Osama bubble in the Muslim world. His following didn’t dry up overnight, but his dizzying rise yielded to dispiriting decline. And the damage went farther than Al-Qaeda. Radical Islam lost its allure as the coming thing in the Arab world. It is no longer unrivalled as the ideology of youth and the hope of the nations.
The French scholar Gilles Kepel, no friend of the war in Iraq and no admirer of George Bush, makes the core point. Osama’s dream was to shift history into the realm of myth. He passionately believed that the ordinary course of mundane history wasn’t what really mattered: there was a divine and a miraculous history just behind the veil. Osama aimed to pierce the veil, to bring hundreds of millions of Muslims into his reality, transfixed and transported by the vision of a climactic fight of good against evil, of God against America and its local allies.
That dream died in Iraq.
But on this Memorial Day it is not enough to remember, and give thanks, that Osama’s dream died before he did and that the terror movement has been gravely wounded at its heart.
Because the dream didn’t just die.
It was killed.
And it was killed by coalition forces. They killed it by fighting harder and smarter than the enemy and they killed it by winning trust and building bridges better than the enemy. They did it because they were better, more honorable warriors and better, more honorable partners for peace. Mostly American and mostly Christian, the coalition forcers were more compassionate, more just, more protective of the poor and more respectful of Arab women than the crazed thugs who thought setting off bombs in the market was fulfilling God’s will.
We must continue to honour and thank the Arab allies and tribal leaders who made the choice for America in a dark and a difficult time. But especially on this Memorial Day we must honour and remember the American heroes who by their lives and by their deaths brought victory out of defeat, understanding out of hatred and gave both Muslims and non-Muslims a chance to get this whole thing right.
The story of America’s victory over terror in Mesopotamia needs to be told. In justice to those who sacrificed so much, and for the sake of those who may have to face similar dangers in the future, somebody needs to tell the real story of how, against all odds and in the face of unremitting scepticism and defeatism at home, our armed forces built a foundation for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.
All wars are tragic; some are also victorious. The tragedies of Iraq are real and well known. The victory is equally real — but the politically fastidious don’t want to look. The minimum we owe our lost and wounded warriors is to tell the story of what they so gloriously achieved.
On this Memorial Day, a truth needs to be told.
We have not yet done justice to our dead.