Memorial Day Musings

Today is Memorial Day, when we in the US are supposed to spend some time thinking about the sacrifices that soldiers have made in the wars over the years (and also attend car races, drink beer and have bar-b-ques).

My grandfather on my mother’s side was not an American soldier; he was in the German Cavalry in World War 1 and an officer in WW2, but he is usually the one I think of when I muse over military history.

(If it matters, he is not one of the three men in the picture at right — in fact that is a picture of cavalry from WW2… I just think standing up to shoot from the saddle is a neat trick — those must be some well trained horses).

Following Germany’s surrender at the end of WW1, my grandfather ended up as a P.O.W. in France (where he nearly starved to death; he and all of his fellow prisoners traded all of their personal belongings for bread). Following WW2, my grandfather ended up in American hands, and, since he was an officer, he was transported to the US for debriefing and captivity following surrender. Interestingly, despite having been a member of the defeated opposition, my grandfather came away from the experience with a positive view of the Americans. He said that the Americans had treated everyone very fairly and great efforts were made by the men who ran the P.O.W. camps to insure that the prisoners were well fed and well treated (the same could not be said for many of the soldiers, particularly the Soviets, who ended up as prisoners in German camps).

Though there is evidence of some atrocities were committed against German prisoners in WW2, the US was relatively magnanimous in victory (on the other hand, I have a great uncle who spent several years as a captive of the Soviets following WW2 and he tells a very different story). And the Germany that my grandfather returned to after his captivity was different, politically and culturally, than the one he left (and probably much for the better since the US has counted on Germany as a military partner rather than an opponent ever since). I think creating an ally out of a defeated enemy in Europe helped secure a relative peace for following generations. The US offered defeated Germany a measure of safety from the Soviets (well, West Germany, anyway).

Maybe ‘Memorial Day’ shouldn’t just be about the past, however. I look at the news from places like Afghanistan and Iraq and wonder how the US will succeed in converting these people from enemies to friends. We don’t seem to be having much success at that and our efforts seem much more piecemeal. Unfortunately, this means that these wars just continue, despite ‘surges’ and declarations of troop withdrawals and banners that read, “Mission Accomplished.” I don’t get the sense that there is a large number of Iraqis or Afghans who see America as an ally or see American intervention as a ‘net positive.’ I got the sense from relatives who had fought for Germany in WW2 that they regarded Hitler’s rule as a national failure, and although erasing that was unrealistic, they at least wanted to try to make up for it and be a very different nation in the future. I think America created that process of turning former enemies into allies not only by helping to rebuild and delivering needed food and supplies, but also by presenting a coherent vision of peace in Europe and a new Germany as a part of that peace rather than just giving the Germans the role of a defeated enemy. The Marshall plan may not have been perfect, but it was a plan and if there is a plan for Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Pakistan and Syria and other points on the map), then I don’t know what it is.

I just don’t see how the US efforts in the ‘epicenter of current troubles’ is going to result in creating a stable democracy in any of these places. If there is a plan, I don’t see it or understand it. I don’t have suggestions, but don’t feel that either the Bush Whitehouse nor the Obama Whitehouse has presented a coherent explanation of what we hope to accomplish and when. Too many half measures and bad compromises and a war in Iraq that we should probably not have started in the first place add up to a chaos where the weak get abused by the strong and the resentments pile up— all of this make me wonder how many more graves are we going to need to dig before the next Memorial Day rolls around?

2 Comments on “Memorial Day Musings”

  1. I wonder if the difference between our current seemingly endless war in the Middle East and WWII was the incredible wave of destruction that was rolled across Europe and Asia. Warfare was pretty indiscriminate 50 years ago and civilians and infrastructure were considered legitimate targets. Certainly lots of people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan but on nowhere near the scale of WWII. I’m not advocating upping the body count, though. Modern weapons are really good at eliminating military targets, which gives the illusion of “mission accomplished” when in reality the work is only just beginning. If war is politics by other means (as Clausewitz says) maybe we need to put more effort into the political side of the equation.

  2. limpey says:

    Maasentodt: I think those are all good points. Although Germany and Japan were both in ruins at the end of WW2, both had a history of manufacturing and had the skilled survivors necessary to rebuild in that regard. And in the 50s and 60s, Americans were eager to buy things like Volkswagens, Leica and Nikon cameras, Zeiss telescopes, and then later Honda scooters and cars, etc.

    I just don't think the troubled countries in the Middle East have anything we want besides oil. There isn't a diversity of industries that helped countries like Germany and Japan recover.

    I do, however, believe that a theocracy in Afghanistan or Iraq will be bad for both our safety and the rights of the people living there. And that's not intended as a slam on Islam; I wouldn't want to live in the US if Falwell and his ilk were in charge, either, simply because I think humans have outgrown theocracies and the only way they can maintain power is through becoming opressive states.

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