- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

Is it worth it?That’s the question Americans ask themselves about the Iraq war. But then, as Memorial Day ought to remind us, that’s a question Americans must ask about every war. Some were more popular than others — as the 60th anniversary of D-Day this week and the opening of the World War II Memorial in Washington remind us — but none were without controversy.

Including World War II. Until Adolf Hitler made the mistake of declaring war on the United States after Pearl Harbor, there were many who doubted we had any business sending soldiers off to Europe again. The generation that fought World War II, after all, had before them the ghastly spectacle of World War I, which was all about … what? The war to end all wars, it seemed, had only led to another, even bigger war.

Some 53,000 Doughboys were killed in World War I. Another 292,000 GIs were killed in World War II. Proportionate to population, the Civil War was by far the most expensive in terms of lives — 780,000 casualties in all. The federal holiday we know as Memorial Day grew out of spontaneous local ceremonies that sprang up after the bloodletting had ended.

The martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln obscures the fact he was bitterly reviled by critics at the time. Gen. George McClellan was drafted to run against Lincoln in 1864 on a Democratic peace platform. Lincoln won with 2.2 million votes, thanks to a timely military victory after a long string of defeats, but McClellan still received an impressive 1.8 million votes.

Even the Revolutionary War, say the historians, was at first supported by only an ardent minority. The 4,400 killed and 6,188 wounded may not sound like much, but in a land of only 3,172,000 people it was still horrific. Only well after the fact did it become apparent to most who would come to call themselves Americans that the Revolution had in fact been one of those rare moments in history when bloodletting led to nearly unalloyed good.

Then there was the War of 1812 (2,260 killed), the Mexican War (1,733 killed), the Spanish-American War (385 killed), the Korean War (33,667 killed), the Vietnam War (47,393 killed) and the first Persian Gulf war (148 killed). All were enormously controversial — hardly less controversial than the Iraq war (800 dead so far, including about 550 from combat wounds).

But even Vietnam may have been worth it, in the sense it was part of a far broader effort to contain and ultimately bring about the crackup of the communist model. By showing America’s willingness to fight, it may have averted even worse bloodshed.

Where will Iraq fit in the long sweep of American history? It is obviously much too early to say, though it too should be seen as part of a far broader effort to contain the forces of disorder issuing from the Middle East.

There have been some welcome signs that winds of change are at long last blowing through that fractious region. If America is making some mistakes, well, it has made mistakes in other wars as well. One strength of democracy is that it tends to learn from its errors while pursuing its overall goal.

In the depths of the Civil War, when victory was still far from assured, Lincoln wrote his famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, the Massachusetts mother whose five sons had all perished in battle:

“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” Lincoln told her. “But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Memorial Day 2004 is a particularly poignant time to express our gratitude to all those who have made sacrifices on the altar of freedom — especially when the outcome of some of those sacrifices couldn’t have been clear to those doing the fighting. Debate about the right course in Iraq is legitimate, but we should take care to place concern for the morale of the troops ahead of partisan rhetoric that makes the assumption the war isn’t worth it. We can’t know that yet.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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