October 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 5
The war in Iraq has been going on for three and a half years now. That’s about the same amount of time America spent fighting World War II. This seems almost impossible considering how firmly the Second World War is embedded in our collective memory. We have even come to think of an entire generation—The Greatest Generation—in terms of that struggle. Cliché or not, we can still see the sharp cut of their uniforms, and those sharp 1940s civvies, the way they wore their hair back then, the America they lived in. We can still hear the music they listened to and the ebullient, confident way they spoke. Images of men shipping out to distant lands, storming the beaches of Normandy and Tarawa; fighting carrier battles over unimaginably vast areas of the Pacific; riding in on the wind to bomb Berlin are all etched on our consciousness, whether gleaned from newsreels of the actual events or the countless movies, books, and television shows that keep rolling out every year. Their war seems to have lasted forever.
That is as it should be. World War II was an unparalleled historical event, one that still determines how we live today. There will never be another war like it, fought on such a vast and murderous scale, by so many men and women. What’s more, we fought it for a good cause; indeed, for the best of causes. Not even turning the war into a cliché can diminish what it was and what we achieved, for the very best things devolve into cliché sooner or later, right down to those Lincoln and Washington impersonators prattling on TV about four-wheel drive during the annual President’s Day sales.
The war in Iraq, by contrast, is conspicuous by its silence, its seeming brevity. “Oh, has the war been going on that long? It seems like it started just yesterday.” Of course, our current war is not nearly as immense, or as deadly or as crucial, thank God, as the one the Greatest Generation fought. But that still doesn’t account for how little it seems to engage us, how much trouble it has even getting any significant time on the local news most evenings. Certainly the Mexican War and the War of 1812, even John Hay’s “splendid little” Spanish-American War, were about as concentrated and lasted for a much shorter time. Our official involvement in World War I, the original Great War, lasted less than half the time the war in Iraq has gone on, from April 1917 to November 1918, and U.S. troops fought in strength during only one campaign season. Nonetheless, all these shorter conflicts swept up the nation in patriotic fervor. In American history, only the Revolution, the Civil War, and Vietnam have been longer sustained conflicts.
One might attribute this strange silence to our decidedly mixed feelings about the war. Yet, while Americans are divided over whether the war should have been fought in the first place, or over its conduct, people on all sides profess to be completely united in support of our troops. And in any case, Americans have rarely been as unified on the home front as we would like to believe.
Most of us are aware of how the Vietnam War led to the largest protest movement in our history, the alienation of many Americans from their national heritage, and recriminations that were still going strong through the 2004 elections. But the history of dissent and division in wartime goes all the way back to the Revolution. No less an authority than John Adams estimated that a third of colonial Americans stayed loyal to the Crown, and some even raised their own militias to fight alongside royal troops. British offers of freedom drew black slaves, who fought fiercely and courageously against our independence.
The War of 1812 witnessed a serious secession movement among the New England states, whose lucrative foreign trade was all but snuffed out. Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, among many others, spoke out against the Mexican War, considering it no better than a cynical land grab designed mostly to facilitate the spread of slavery. The Civil War was an internecine conflict, of course, but even within the Union there was furious dissent over what the war was being fought to achieve and whether it should have been fought at all. This division led to mass arrests, the suspension of habeas corpus, and widespread charges of treason leveled against anti-war Copperheads. In New York City dis-satisfaction with the war, and especially how it was being run, spilled over into the worst riot in our national history.
Americans as diverse as Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie vehemently opposed our bloody quelling of the Filipino insurgency that followed the SpanishAmerican War, a struggle all but unmentioned in our history books, although it too lasted for more than three years. Our entry into World War I sparked opposition from a small but influential bloc within Congress, including the senators Robert M. La Follette, George Norris, and James K. Vardaman, and the feminist congresswoman Jeannette Rankin. The socialist congressman Victor Berger was actually ousted from the House for his outspoken opposition to the war. More than 10,000 Americans were charged with dodging the draft, and under Woodrow Wilson’s pernicious 1917 Espionage Act thousands more were arrested and jailed for daring to disparage the war. (The conflict also brought on some of the very worst judicial writing by the Supreme Court immortal Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who made his famous argument that publishing a pamphlet against our involvement was the equivalent of crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater.)
“Workers struck in record numbers in 1917,” writes the historian Nell Irvin Painter in her unflinching history
Even World War II saw considerable turmoil on the home front—the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles; major disturbances in Detroit and New York; constant conflicts throughout the country as African-Americans took jobs in previously all-white plants; running fights between black troops based in the South and local law enforcement officers. The term juvenile delinquent first came into common parlance when fathers went off to war while mothers went off to work.
Yet all these conflicts, terrible as they often were, may be considered the growth spasms of a vigorous democracy. Even the fissures that Vietnam opened in our society, with all the bad feelings they emanated for years to come, can be seen as an enduring lesson in liberty: When the government ran an undeclared war the people did not support, they put an end to it. In that war at home there was honor on both sides; early on in our escalation in Indochina, there were even mass rallies held in favor of the war.
Wrongheaded as those might now seem to have been, I prefer them to our current state of civic disengagement. The most disappointing realization about the war in Iraq is how little we care, how precious few demonstrators there are on either side of the issue. Just as the war exists for most of us on television, so we have subcontracted out our civic feeling to the angry rhetoric of so many ranting heads. We do not serve, we do not pay, we do not watch, and we do not object. Imagine how this might have worked in World War II. No matter how this war comes out, we have already lost.