Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Iraq War: The War With No Heroes…Why?

Last night I heard a pundit suggest—as many do—that the trouble with our lack of morale concerning the Iraq War stems from George W. Bush’s inability to defend the work our troops are doing. He should get out on the hustings, said the Oracle, and tell us the truth: that we are winning. I thought: Dear God, does that poor man who has the burden of running the United States, with political responsibility over its economy, foreign policy, health and human services have also to be the only salesman for the war effort? I have written this before—sparingly—but it deserves amplification. This is a war with heroes but we don’t know who they are. Contrast this with other wars we have fought: especially the ones I remember, World War II and Korea.

I was 13 when we entered World War II—old enough to pay attention to how the war was being waged. Franklin Roosevelt, a charismatic, dynamic leader was president—but did Roosevelt sell the war effort all by himself? He did not. As a kid, I could tick off the popular figures: starting with Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, George Marshall the then army chief of staff, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral William (Bull) Halsey. The Eisenhower story began when he was selected to lead our troops in North Africa, an engagement that did not go very well, by the way, but the publicizing went on. Under Eisenhower was the famed tank commander, Gen. George Patton. We had photos of these people in the press regularly: Omar Bradley, Courtney Hodges. Without notes I can still tick them off. We knew our heroes just like kids knew their sports figures. There was Tooey Spaatz, the Army Air Force general. And of course we knew the dynamic young flying heroes: Butch O’Hare of Chicago, Richard Bong of Wisconsin. We thrilled to the heroics of the landlubbers, too: South Dakota’s Joe Foss who won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As a kid one Sunday at Mass at St. Juliana, our pastor presented one of the icon heroes of Iwo Jima who was pictured in that immortal photograph of the flag-raising. We knew who took the photo: Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. And we knew not just Americans. Britain had the dashing Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. We knew his nickname: Monty. In the desert sands was General Sir Archibald Wavell. We also knew the failure men who were identified with perfidy: one, a Marshall of France, Henri Phillipe Petain, became the custodian of the humiliated government at Vichy. We knew General Charles deGaulle—Charles of France. We knew his rival General Henri Giraud. Of course we knew the enemy, too, just as kids we had baseball cards: Hermann Goering, head of the Nazi air force, Field Marshall Eric von Runstedt, the sea hawk who preyed on our shipping, Admiral Karl Donitz. We knew the diplomatic players as well, Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Italy’s foreign minister Count Ciano, the son-in-law of Mussolini. We knew Hirohito, Admiral Tojo. I could go on and on.

The point is that in this war we have heroes of whom we know nothing. Who exactly is the top army commander in Iraq? Who is the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: I can answer that one, Marine General Peter Pace, the first Marine to hold that post. But we knew enough about George Marshall to write a biography of him. What do we know of Peter Pace? The commander in Iraq is General George Kenney, I think. If I have to say “I think” it means there has been no effort to bring human identity to this war. Who is the face of the war? I am somewhat sorry to say it’s Don Rumsfeld. But Rumsfeld is a controlled type (I happen to know him fairly well) who is not going to go out of his way with the press to demonstrate that he runs a battlefield of heroes. Anyhow, cabinet people aren’t good spokesmen: they’re political re-treads. Roosevelt’s war cabinet consisted of caustic, cold Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war. Nobody knew or cared about him in the general public during the war. Roosevelt’s secretary of the Navy was Frank Knox. Who? The Navy’s heroes were Nimitz, Halsey and McCain, the father of John McCain.

The reason there are no faces of valor for the public to venerate in this war lies, I suspect, with Don Rumsfeld as cold and steely as a Prussian Junker. He is a control freak and I really doubt that he has people on his staff who set the wheels in motion to glorify people who really need glorifying. Where are the Congressional Medal of Honor winners in this war? I’m sure there are some. Have you heard of them? I haven’t. Korea was a war where we scored a tie but I can list the commanders: Matthew Ridgeway, the dashing paratrooper general who succeeded MacArthur, General Craigton Abrams who was killed, General James Van Fleet. These names are all from memory, mind you—they were that vivid. In Vietnam we only had one General Westmoreland. There were no others. LBJ tried to promote him as a future politician but the war was going so badly he gave it up. He shouldn’t have. The reason the war went badly is that America was not schooled to venerate her heroes.

You might say the mainstream media will not want to glorify heroes in a war they oppose. Well there’s enough New Media—talk radio, cable networks, internet—to do the job ourselves. Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we insisting that rather than see another grim, humorless Rumsfeld face the camera with his jaw set firmly, refusing to give out much information, officers in the field get on camera. It’s as if we waged a Civil War without Grant, Sherman or Sheridan, a Spanish American war without the dashing Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill or Admiral Dewey at Manila Bay. It’s as if we waged World War I without a John J. Pershing or a Sergeant York. World War II without Colin P. Kelly. You can’t stoke up admiration and support for the war at home if you will not publicize its heroes. And I feel strongly that thanks to the grim-visaged Pentagon guys with the brief-cases, those who are really winning this war are unknown.

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