By chance I was reading Winston Churchill’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough. It is not quite topdrawer Churchill; the prose rolls and swaggers, but it is also marbled with phoniness. The climactic event, the War of the Spanish Succession, is very little like the war we are now in, with one important exception: The duke’s side is a coalition. Some of our wars were one-on-one—the Civil War, the Mexican War—and in memory we flatten out the others into the same binary pattern. Churchill gives a hint of the betrayals, cross-purposes, and fishing in troubled waters that everyone, except maybe Canada and Britain, will have in store for us.
We also tend to flatten out our own domestic dissensions in wartime. We remember Vietnam but think of it as singular. Yet many Americans have hated their government, especially when it was fighting. The diary of John Quincy Adams (out of print, but available in libraries) gives the viewpoint of a former President who considered the Mexican War a crime and tragedy. The diary of Gouverneur Morris (also out of print) shows a Founding Father with the same view of the War of 1812. Let us hope that Americans unite in a just cause. But there will be many carpers, and some traitors, a good deal less honorable than Adams or Morris.
One other thought comes from very recent history—September 13, 2001. That day, at the impromptu shrine that has sprung up in Union Square in New York City, someone wrote on one of the many sheets of paper taped to the ground this question: “Why is life such a bitch?” Why indeed? It is a beauty and a marvel, but it is also always a bitch. No one leaves alive. Let’s roll.