The New York Post
May 19, 2015
On Memorial Day, do we affirm our national faith in the justice of our wars, or honor only the individual sacrifice of those who gave the last, full measure of devotion? How we as a nation answer that question will have profound consequences for our next major war.
More than a century ago, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes presented as two sides of the same coin our national faith in the rightness of our cause and the selfless dedication of the soldier on the battlefield. He said, “Memorial Day solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might.”
Today, Memorial Day is most closely associated with the 16 million who served in World War II, our last victorious war. While honor is paid to the 3 million veterans who served in Vietnam, that war is seen as a failure. As for the 2 million who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, those ongoing wars stir more rancor than admiration.
Presidential candidates on the left and the right savage the Iraq War as a monumental blunder. It is now commonplace to proclaim, “I honor the soldier, but not the cause for which he died.”
That distinction ends in defeat. If our nation has lost faith in its cause, why should anyone fight for us?
A social contract exists between those who go into battle and those who send them there. The vast majority of our fatalities occur in the Army, Marine and Special Forces units that serve on the ground — our grunts. A grunt fights with all his might to win. Similarly, policymakers, elected officials and generals must fight with all their might to provide him attainable goals and the resources to win. If they falter in their resolve — or worse, if they just plain quit on the fight — they have broken the social contract.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, President George W. Bush and the generals intended to build democratic nations. They set unattainable goals. President Obama plain quit by withdrawing forces completely from Iraq and leaving only a token force in Afghanistan. Worse, neither president fully embraced his role as commander in chief in rallying the American public and explaining why our enemies had to be defeated. It was an overreach to attempt to build democracies in these countries. But the jihadist terrorists remain our vicious enemy. America isn’t unified in fighting those intent upon killing us. Instead, President Obama likes to say that more Americans die in bathtubs than in terrorist attacks.
We are drifting without a strategy. Our Congress is too divided to pass a declaration of war. Fifteen years of overly ambitious goals and under-resourced commitments have sapped the public’s belief that our leaders can properly employ military force. Destroying the Islamic State does not require a US invasion; it does require more American force and leadership.
Beyond the immediate threat, we must grasp the historical risk of our aimless course. America spends less on the military than at any point in the last 70 years. Fully 75 percent of our youths today cannot pass the mental, physical and moral standards of our military.
Volunteers to serve in the grunts comprise one-quarter of 1 percent of our youth population. That tiny fraction was barely able to sustain the deployment pace in Iraq and Afghanistan. That should concern us all, because wars won’t remain optional, to be fought only by the very, very few. Like a hurricane, a major war will occur again, on a scale 10 times the size of Iraq or Afghanistan.
When it does, Memorial Day, as Justice Holmes observed, must “reaffirm a national act of enthusiasm and faith.” To win, it’s not just the grunt who must believe in his cause.
Since WWII, three generations of the West family have served in combat as Marine grunts. Bing West served in Vietnam; Owen West served in Iraq.