The Measure of a Nation

April 15, 2004 marked the return to an old strategy by a new enemy. If the democracies of the world could not be defeated in battle, al Qaeda would use the carrot and stick approach to bring down Western civilization using the fear of further megaterror while capitalizing on the anti-war sentiment in Europe and the United States to undermine popular support for America’s war on terrorism.

On that day, Osama Bin Laden released a high quality 7-minute videotape through al Jazeera TV that offered a truce with America’s European allies provided that they refrained from attacking “Muslim countries” including “intervening in their affairs.” The tape attempted to make the case that Israel’s assassination of the spiritual leader of Hamas (Sheik Ahmed Yassin) on March 22, 2004 and America’s attempt to “make billions of dollars in profit” in Iraq through major corporations like Halliburton, demonstrated a “narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang…What happened on September 11 and March 11 was your goods delivered back to you,” he said.


He referred to the 2004 electoral defeat of the center-right, staunchly anti-terrorist government of Spain as a ” positive development.” That defeat occurred three days after the Madrid bombings and was widely viewed as a strategic victory for terrorism. While European leaders quickly rejected the not-so-blatant strategy, the tape nevertheless represented a new effort by al Qaeda to capitalize on political dissent in America and Europe (to the American enterprise in Iraq) by using negative propaganda, hidden threats and presumptive awards. Bin Laden referred to demonstrations in Europe as “positive interaction” and mentioned “opinion polls, which indicated that most European peoples want peace.”

For many that recall the Vietnam era, this approach is deja vu. In a recent article in the Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave noted that during the Vietnam War, General Giap relied on the American peace movement to weaken American resolve. That had the effect of turning an American military victory into a political defeat. Former North Vietnamese General Staff officer Bui Tin once said that the peace movement was “essential to our strategy.” In America, the open support of Hanoi by Jane Fonda, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (now head of International ANSWER, which coordinates the largest protests) and others “gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses,” Bui Tin said. “Through dissent and protest,” the US “lost the ability to mobilize a will to win.”

As a result, the surprise 1968 Tet Offensive (which involved suicidal attacks by the Viet Cong in some 70 cities and towns, and 30 other strategic objectives simultaneously) turned the political tide of the war against America and eventually led to the protest movement that (in turn) led to the American defeat in Vietnam. From a military perspective, it is important to note that the Tet Offensive was a singularly unmitigated disaster both for Hanoi and for its Viet Cong troops in South Vietnam. Not one of the objectives of the Viet Cong in that Offensive was achieved. Yet, it proved to be a major turning point in the war.

Being the first major “television war,” Americans watched the carnage in horror and concluded (incorrectly) that it was a military disaster for America. One of America’s most trusted newsmen, CBS’s Walter Cronkite, even appeared for a standup piece with distant fires as a backdrop. Donning a helmet, Cronkite declared the war lost. Eugene McCarthy carried New Hampshire and Bobbie Kennedy stepped forward to challenge the policies of an already distraught President. Six weeks later, Lyndon Johnson, in the midst of national protest, announced that he would not seek re-election. His ratings had plummeted to 30 percent after Tet. Approval of his handling of the war had dropped to 20 percent. He had concluded that the war was unwinnable.

In the end, American support for the Vietnam War faded. Giap admitted in his memoirs that news media reporting of the war and the antiwar demonstrations that ensued in America surprised him. Instead of negotiating what he called a “conditional surrender,” Giap said they would now go the limit because America’s resolve was weakening and the possibility of complete victory was within Hanoi’s grasp.

Bui Tin, who served on the general staff of the North Vietnamese army, received South Vietnam’s unconditional surrender on April 30, 1975. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal after his retirement, he made clear that the antiwar movement in the United States (which led to the collapse of political will in Washington) was “essential to our strategy.”

These lessons have not been lost to a new era of Islamic fascists for we can see the implications arising, once again, in Iraq. America can win the war in Iraq. The question is whether we will lose the war here at home as we did during Vietnam. The terrorist opponents of a new Iraq are cleverly playing to American fears of another Vietnam and our media and some of our elected representatives are unwittingly buying into the strategy.

With each attack on the President, with our constant self-flagellation over Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, our enemies become more emboldened and see discord and division in America not as an exercise of democratic dissent but as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve. Critics fail to recognize how such attacks are perceived by Iraqis watching the Arab media while American soldiers are risking their lives to liberate Iraq and to create a new Middle East.

We do have a grave problem in this country, but it is not the plan for Iraq nor the architects of the Bush Doctrine. In somber tones, the American media constantly assures us that the worst is yet to come; that body bags should determine American foreign policy, and that Iraq is a “quagmire.” Coverage of our effort to stabilize and democratize Iraq is being treated like a national affliction. Using cheap criticism, pious moralizing and election year politicking, defeatism is smothering all reason, all perspective, any sense of balance – and so success in the Iraqi war is not assessed in terms of years (as it was during World War II), but in terms of a few months.

With such an attitude, American resolve would never have survived the loss of 6,000 American soldiers on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. In fact, this generation would never have made it to Omaha Beach. We would have held back on Operation Overlord pending congressional hearings to determine what went wrong and who was to blame for the Pearl Harbor disaster or for the Japanese internment. We would still be apologizing for the death of civilians caused by the carpet bombing of strategic towns in France prior to D-Day, and no doubt, we would have recalled General Eisenhower to explain his harsh treatment of Axis prisoners even as the Nazis plotted their future conquest of the world.

We live in a world where one Filipino captive on TV can determine the policy of an entire nation, where one bombing in Madrid can alter an election. We have moved centuries away from understanding how Londoners who survived the Blitz won a war or how Americans who endured Saipan, Gualdalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa defeated the Japanese Empire. Today, we want success, but only if it is painless (and the bar keeps getting lower with each passing day).

The terrorists are counting on this, and they know that the media can deliver for them. Each time an American dies on an Iraqi battlefield, it is portrayed like an American Division being destroyed, and each American bomb that goes astray is treated like another Dresden. I miss the spirit of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy and I fear for a nation that doesn’t understand why.

President Clinton wrote an instructive editorial in the Washington Post in early 2004 that spoke of his failure to act on the Rwandan genocide. He lamented that “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become a safe haven for the killers.” Clinton continued that his hope was that “the international community will continue to learn from our mistakes in Rwanda in 1994. We need to improve our intelligence-gathering capabilities, increase the speed with which international intervention can be undertaken and muster the global political will required to respond to the threat of genocide wherever it may occur.” It is that spirit that has been forgotten by many of those whom we have chosen to govern us.

Historical forces are in play here. Unless I missed it, I have not yet heard the Iraqi people demand that Saddam Hussein or his cronies be returned to power. There are grounds for hope. One year after the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein is gone; a decent interim Iraqi government is poised to assume sovereignty over the country; the devastating level of casualties that was predicted at the outset of the war never materialized; the security situation (though inexcusably bad) appears to be improving; Muqtada al-Sadr is now marginalized; and the Shia center is holding – there is nothing approaching civil war.

And earlier this month, the new prime minister, Iyad Alawi, expressed his gratitude to the United States for liberating his country, confirmed that it would be “a major disaster” for the US to leave, and privately said that to win the war “it is necessary to kill the enemy,” so it’s unlikely he will constrain US forces excessively after he assumes power.

Today, Iraq has become the crucible for another epic struggle – the global war on terrorism. As Ronald Reagan reminded us twenty years ago in memorializing the sacrifices made by Americans on D-Day – “They had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. Those who fought here and others who died here knew that there was a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. We had come to liberate Europe, not to conquer it, and you and those others never doubted your cause.”

At the American cemetery behind St. Mere-Eglise, high above the sea at Colleville-sur-Mer almost 9,000 crosses and Stars of David stand in perfect rows on immaculate lawns. But there is something more. There are over 10,400 Americans resting in the World War II cemetery at St. Avold in the Lorraine – more dead than at the Normandy cemetery. No sitting American president has ever visited that graveyard. It’s time. As Victor Davis Hanson once wrote: “The inscriptions at American graveyards admonish the visitor to remember sacrifice, courage, and freedom; they assume somebody bad once started a war to hurt the weak, only to fail when somebody better stopped them.” I don’t think those asleep at St. Avold or the tens of thousands sleeping under their white marble crosses in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg from the Meuse-Argonne to Hamm would be pleased to hear that we fought the Nazis and Japanese fascists the “wrong way” or that we should have relied on more education, better mutual understanding and “getting our message across.” There are some things in this world that cannot be negotiated.

Those who lie silently in these places determined, in their time, that they would set a continent free and support the cause of freedom knowing that it was both right and just to do so. If we can maintain our sanity a little while longer, and accept that we have made some mistakes in Iraq; if we can learn from our errors and press on without undermining the morale of our military and the cause that brought us to this foreign battleground, Iraq will become another signal moment in human history. It will become everything the barbarians fear most – a free, powerful and prosperous Arab nation, stable and (if we continue to press our cause) at peace, in time, with its neighbors. And America will have achieved an honorable thing at another critical moment in world history – something that would have been impossible without the same resolve, the same courage, the same sense of national purpose, and the same support that carried our Greatest Generation to victory.

Sleep in peace. In your sacrifice, you have given us our freedom. We will not forget.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *