Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Ruminations on December 7 and Our Generation

What follows isn't meant as a political statement. To the extent it criticizes, its criticism is directed at all of us in America, including myself.

Yesterday, December 7, saw the confluence of several important events.

First, it was the sixty-third anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Until September 11, 2001, it was the most grievous act of aggression against America in the nation's history.

Second, Hamid Karzai was inaugurated as the democratically-elected president of Afghanistan. This was a fruit of the US war against the al Qaeda terrorist network which, along with its Taliban allies, once held Afghanistan in its grip and used the nation as a staging ground for its terrorist acts.

Third, the House passed a revised Intelligence Reform bill based largely on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission appointed in response to the 2001 attacks.

In the days immediately following those attacks, it was common for people to say that just as Pearl Harbor represented one of the defining moments of what Tom Brokaw called "the greatest generation," the September 11 assaults by al Qaeda was this generation's defining moment.

Just as that earlier generation of Americans would be called upon to sacrifice and pull together for the good of the country, we were called upon to make sacrifices and pull together.

The efforts on the homefront by World War Two Americans were incredible. Historians Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager write:
President Roosevelt had called upon the United States to become "the arsenal of democracy," and the nation responded. The enormous energies of the whole people were speedily channeled into war production, and all its activities--manufacturing, farming, mining, transportation, communication, finances and even science and education--were in some measure brought under new or enlarged governmental controls. Great new industries were created overnight...Universities and industrial research laboratories were commandeered for the development of hundreds of new techniques, gadgets, and inventions and for research in such things as radar, sonar, the proximity fuse and the atom bomb...

Labor as well as capital contributed its full share to the winning of the war...The only serious labor difficulties came in the coal mines...

Farmers, too, performed of production...[In spite of being] under severe handicaps of labor shortages and inadequate supplies of farm machinery, the farmers broke all agricultural records.
And it wasn't in just wholly-mandated ways that the American public marshalled itself to win the Second World War. Americans came together in voluntary ways, making sacrifices for the war effort that either weren't legally mandated or which could have been easily eluded. That fact is underscored during this time of year, when most of us watch It's a Wonderful Life, with its portrayals of rubber tire drives, air raid drills, USO-volunteering, and blood drives.

We must of course, grant that the war against the Axis powers was very different from the one we're now fighting against al Qaeda and its allies. Yet, it must be said, the nation hardly seems marshalled behind this effort. If anything, our national bad habits of overspending and self-indulgence seem worse than ever, whether reflected in our federal budget or in our personal lives. Again, I indict myself as a guilty party in this state of affairs.

Our political leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, seem to have concluded that America's economic strength is such that little sacrifice is demanded of us as individuals and that government spending, even for non-war-related items, can create unprecedented volumes of red ink without endangering us. A conservative Vice President says that "deficits don't matter."

I feel as though we Americans are being treated like lab rats by our political leaders: They seem to feel that as long as they throw us more pork, we'll be happy and hardly notice that we're in a war.

This is doubly troubling because I feel that it plays into al Qaeda's hands. Osama bin Laden has credited the 1970s-80s war of "Afghan freedom fighters" against the Soviet Union with the Evil Empire's demise. He claims that the expenditures of money and lives destroyed the Soviet state. While I think that bin Laden's assessment doesn't take many other factors that led to the death of Soviet Communism into account, the war in Afghanistan nonetheless played its part.
Bin Laden has made it clear that his guerilla-like assault on America is designed in part to cause us to spend ourselves into oblivion.

It has been three-years-and-three-months since the September 11, 2001, attacks on our country. It was precisely at the same point following the attack on Pearl Harbor that, on March 7, 1945, Americans took the Remagen Bridge and began moving across the Rhine. Within weeks, Mussolini was executed, Hitler committed suicide, and Germany surrendered.

Whether we have made similar progress in the war on al Qaeda since 9/11 is a judgment that people far more knowledgeable than I can make. There have been many notable successes, such as the fact that no terrorist acts have occurred on US soil since that grievous day and the fact that al Qaeda has been largely driven from Afghanistan, now functioning as a democracy. (I leave out consideration of the War in Iraq, about which there are conflicting judgments both as to its relevance to the war against al Qaeda and its success. Again, brighter minds will have to address that.) As I say, my intention here isn't to make a political statement.

In any case, comparisons of World War Two with this war probably at least border on apples-to-oranges, except as it relates to the homefront.

Somehow, I feel, we all need to be engaged at some level in this struggle and it doesn't seem to be happening. I sense that in some ways, we all are missing our chance to be part of an effort that could mark us, if we sacrifice and work together enough, as the rightful heirs of the greatest generation.

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