"Colossal failures of judgment are to be expected in wartime, (and) most wartime presidents have made catastrophic blunders...."
-- Max Boot, Los Angeles Times
Regrets? I've had a few, including disliking history so much during my student days that I studied only to earn the required credit. What a pity, I learned, the minute I began researching the history of Columbia County and, of necessity, the times and origins of those who settled here.
Today I'm an avowed historical junkie, not because I have to be, but because I had no idea I would learn so much about life in the present tense by studying the past.
Still, I have no right to judge those who stopped studying at graduation's door. Without a strong motive I might not have saturated myself with the past, either. But if non-stop news and election-year sound bites are any indication, many people threw away their history books -- and deleted what information they once had -- long ago. Nowhere is this so apparent as in the ongoing drumbeat over the bungled mess President Bush has made of the war in Iraq.
To listen only to the critics, you'd think no war has ever lasted (or will last) so long, or has (or will) cost so many American lives.
Granted, the news from Iraq these days is terribly unsettling. No one wants the casualty list to keep growing, or the unrest in that tragic country to consume more U.S. blood, money or attention. Understandably, as these circumstances continue, opposition to the war is on the rise. But it's equally tragic that, with limited knowledge of the past, we are in danger of developing historical Alzheimer's disease. We'll simply have no way to balance what's happening now with similar events in the past.
So today let's look back at some of the wars this country has waged before and see how they compare with Iraq. This is not a time for judgment calls, or hand-wringing over wars that shouldn't have been fought -- does that not include them all? -- or at least not fought "that way." Instead we'll confine ourselves to verifiable facts, including time lines and casualty lists.
The longest war: More than a year before America's Declaration of Independence was signed, a small militia group from Lexington, Mass., fired "the shot heard 'round the world," and the American Revolution was begun. By the time Britain's Commander, Gen. Charles Cornwallis, surrendered to America's Gen. George Washington on Oct. 19, 1781, exactly 6 1/2 years had passed since that fateful day April 19, 1775.
Although the major battles for American independence were over by then, preliminary articles of peace were not signed until November of the next year, and it would be another 10 months before the final peace treaty between the two countries was signed in Paris on September 3, 1783.
Yet even after more than eight years, America's struggle for autonomy was not over. The War of 1812, often called a postscript to the revolution, would add another three years to the conflict, to say nothing of the troubled generation in between.
Even then a watching world remained unconvinced that "the fragile republic" called America would survive, and history was on their side. Republics may be good theory, but only nations ruled by kings or dictators had endured before. The critics must have felt vindicated when, 50 years later, America was at war again, this time in a four-year battle with her own people. Thankfully the "fragile republic" has survived, but not without almost a century of wars for independence, unity and self-rule.
The most casualties: Although we are averaging one or two losses a day in Iraq, nearly 250 deaths occurred each day in our own Civil War. And casualties per capita during the Revolution, especially in the South, were greater than that. More recently, we suffered 300 losses a day in World War II, and another 95,000 in Korea and Vietnam.
We could go on, make more comparisons or point out differences and step up the criticism another notch. But whether we disparage our own government, or cluck our tongues at the slow-learning Iraqis, let's at least have an honest debate by comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges as if the struggle for independence in that country and our own had nothing in common at all.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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