Young Americans in uniform grasp what too many of their civilian counterparts don't. This generation whose only war memory is of the swift Operation Desert Storm acts surprised that the current war involves pain and sacrifice. Or that it takes time.
Of course it would be marvelous to win a war quickly and without casualties, but no army goes to war expecting such an outcome. War is horrific. War is costly. War is never worth the cost -- except when the cost of inaction would be greater.
And since no leader knows the future, taking up arms is a judgment call. A calculated risk.
The media tell us support for Operation Iraqi Freedom is waning. But evolving public opinion on the war and rebuilding of Iraq probably reflects more on the proximity to the next presidential election than on the relative success or failure of the mission. And no political party is above using the successes or failures of an ongoing military campaign for political purposes.
The president, who celebrated perhaps prematurely the end of the combat phase of the operation, now complains that the media report only the casualties, which are relatively few from a historical perspective, while ignoring the overall success of the operation. But even though the task has changed from fighting to rebuilding, it still looks a lot like war to those military personnel facing incoming fire.
Those seeking to unseat the president have staked out their opposing positions on the operation along a continuum: Sen. Joe Lieberman supports the broad parameters of the mission while questioning some of the details, Gov. Howard Dean condemns the whole operation, and the rest of the crowded pack is somewhere in between -- except for the Arkansas general, whose early general support morphed into general opposition in a tactical move designed to achieve the final objective of Operation Elect Clark President.
Whatever your own opinion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it would be hard to argue with two basic observations: 1) Our military has made great strides, but 2) We have suffered some painful setbacks.
Which makes it pretty much like every other armed conflict in history.
Nothing about this war is unique, including the presence of war critics. Most Americans opposed U.S. involvement in World War II until Pearl Harbor, and even then prominent Americans such as Charles Lindbergh publicly opposed going to war in Europe. Although the pioneer aviator has been incorrectly and unfairly labeled a pacifist and a Nazi sympathizer, in reality he opposed the war on practical grounds: he thought we were unprepared to face the technological superiority of the Germans, and the war threatened to divide the West and create a power vacuum that Josef Stalin was poised to fill. Nevertheless, once the war began, Lindbergh offered his willing service.
Not a few Americans opposed our involvement in World War I, arguing that we had no stake in the conflict. Some historians today think the world would, in fact, have been better off had the United State never entered the war; it took a defeated, deflated Germany to incubate the Third Reich, which proved a far more terrible adversary than the Kaiser.
Gen. Robert E. Lee was among those who opposed slavery, secession and even the looming war between the states, but his loyalty to his beloved Virginia compelled him not only to decline Lincoln's offer to lead the Union Army, but to accept the command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line were divided over the issues of slavery, secession and the necessity of war.
Even our own American Revolution fomented long, with Tories switching loyalties one by one in the face of British intransigence. Ben Franklin was a late convert to the movement for independence. And Gen. Benedict Arnold found himself on the wrong side of history when he switched loyalties late in the war and thereby erased the legacy of his honorable career and made his name forever synonymous with treason.
Americans have a long tradition of making a distinction between the mission and the troops in combat; it is possible to oppose the former while supporting the latter. This tradition was lost briefly in Vietnam, when the soldiers found themselves the targets of anti-war hatred. The reward for their shed blood was spit from the mouths of self-righteous protesters, cowards made bold by the security of their mobs, gathered in airports to assault the soldiers coming home. It is a dark stain on our nation's history.
Fortunately that has changed. Many Americans who question our presence in Iraq -- the cost, the duration, the justification -- still express support for the troops. But if we are truly to respect their devotion to duty, we would do well to take instruction from their example. They are not acting in blind obedience, mere pawns in a scheme to advance the ambitions of political leaders. They understand and believe in the mission.
A growing body of evidence points to Saddam Hussein himself as the culprit behind the daily attacks on American troops. The fox who was unable to defeat us on the battlefield expects to defeat us incrementally by breaking our will to continue. He has always characterized the United States as soft and weak, unable to stomach the rigors of war. He is now left with no alternative but to test his assumption.
Our young soldiers are ready to prove him wrong. Their example compels us all to press on. The United States must not shrink from its mission of hunting down and destroying the Islamic terrorist network while creating a free democracy in the Middle East. People of the region must be introduced to the real America, not the America they have grown to fear and hate by the propaganda of their own oppressive leaders.
The real America is not there to destroy them but to show them a better way. The real America is seen in the face of the young soldier who first drove out their brutal dictator and now extends a hand of friendship.
America can be proud of this new generation in a long line of American soldiers who have stepped forward, ready to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to ensure peace and security. The valor of today's soldier and sailor reminds us -- on this Veterans Day -- to honor those who went bravely before them.