No doubt, the president will argue that we must risk American lives in Iraq to bring our democratic way of life to a once-enslaved nation. He will proclaim that we are doing once again what the “greatest generation” did during World War II. He will tell us that the WW II generation became the greatest because it understood so well the stark difference between our democracy and totalitarianism.
But the popular memory of that era does not match the reality of that time. If Bush campaign strategists take a careful look at Americans as they were 60 years ago, they should see trouble ahead.
During World War II, poet Randall Jarrell estimated that “99 of 100 of the people in the army haven’t the faintest idea what the war’s about.” Journalist Robert Sherrod wrote that “The Marines . . didn’t know what to believe in . . . except the Marine Corps.” The young playwright Arthur Miller remarked on “the near absence among the men I worked with… of any comprehension of what Nazism meant.” Commentator Dwight Macdonald called the war simply “the maximum of physical devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning.” An official survey of Army Air Corpsmen in 1944 confirmed these impressions. A top Air Corps official explained that there was “very little idealism, not much willingness to discuss what we are fighting for.”
If President Bush’s strategists look to World War II for a political lesson, they’ll not find Americans who gave their lives for foreigners’ political freedom. Instead, they’ll find Americans who were willing to sacrifice only when they felt personally endangered.
The New York Times reported that the typical soldier thought simply that “the war must be finished quickly so that he can return to take up his life where he left it.” Interviewing soldiers at the front, John Hersey found that they “usually talked about creature comforts, secure routines, even affluence.” One marine, answering Hersey’s inquiry as to why he was fighting, gave the immortal reply: “Jesus, what I’d give for a piece of blueberry pie.”
“Pie was a symbol of home,” Hersey added. Most historians now agree that, during the war, civilians as well as soldiers wanted to win as quickly as possible in order to return to ordinary life in the safety of secure homes. The challenge to Bush is to convince Americans that their fighting forces must risk death in Iraq to preserve our security here at home, our right to eat blueberry pie.
During the Cold War, Americans proved that they could support a conflict for ideological reasons. The story of World War II as a battle to the death between opposed political systems took hold in public discourse only in the late 1940s, after the Cold War had begun. It was far easier to commit the nation to opposing Soviet communism if communist totalitarians were depicted as the precise equivalent of German fascist totalitarians.
But the Cold War was never aimed primarily at freeing foreign masses enslaved by Red tyrants. It was seen almost everywhere as a war of containment to prevent those tyrants from taking away our own freedom. When the Cold War turned hot, as in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam later, the public showed distinctly limited patience for U.S. casualties and virtually no interest in freedom for North Korea or Vietnam.
The evidence of history is that Americans have little desire to bring freedom to foreign nations if the risks to themselves and their military forces are more than minimal. As long as young American men and women are being killed and maimed in Iraq, appeals to the mythic image of “the greatest generation” may stir the voters, but not nearly enough to give Bush a margin of victory.
The Bush campaign can count on public support for its Iraq policies only if the public is convinced that America itself was directly threatened by Saddam Hussein, now captured. Credible evidence that Saddam’s regime had weapons of mass destruction or links to al-Qaida would help immensely. It would suggest that our own security might be endangered if U.S. troops were to leave Iraq. It would lend substance to the administration’s claim that further sacrifice is worthwhile. But the likelihood that such evidence will appear is rapidly evaporating.
Bush’s hope of running as a popular war president is fading fast. In this respect, as in so many others, the president is falling victim to overconfidence. With no game plan beyond chasing Saddam from power, the taste of victory may turn bitter. Defeat in the November election would be the crowning irony of his war and his presidency.