The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
—Winston Churchill, tribute to the Royal Air Force,
House of Commons, August 20, 1940
The Royal Air Force turned the tide of war in 1940. American soldiers and Marines turned the tide of war in Iraq in 2007-08, and in Afghanistan in 2010-11. They deserve tributes similar in spirit, if not quite in grandeur, to that paid by Churchill to the British airmen of 1940. But we Americans, who sleep peacefully in our beds at night, are not inclined to give too much thought, let alone pay too much tribute, to those who stand ready to fight on our behalf. Instead, the moment we can tell ourselves the threat is less urgent or the mission too difficult, we cut their budgets and reduce their ranks. And when the greatest general of our generation is caught in an indiscretion, even if it occurs after he had completed 37 years of service in the military that were beyond reproach, and when another fine general with a spotless record is subject to third-hand claims of allegedly “inappropriate” statements in emails, we chortle and decide that the military is no better than our other institutions.
Soldiers turning the tide of war? That kind of thing doesn’t matter any more, we tell ourselves. What matters is top marginal tax rates, if you’re a Republican, or free contraception, if you’re a Democrat. Afghanistan, where 68,000 Americans serve? The Obama administration figures out how to head for the exits, and the Republican challenger pretends it doesn’t exist. The use of force to stop a nuclear Iran, or to affect the outcome in Syria—or to rescue Americans under assault in Benghazi? Too difficult to discuss. The intelligence assessments haven’t been completed.
And so all serious people agree the fiscal cliff matters. The defense cliff, not so much. And the fact that the world is going over a cliff, in the absence of a conviction in the United States that might must be allied with right? Barely worthy of comment.
After all, the whole notion of turning the tide of history through the use of military force is so retrograde. Today, we believe, as President Obama repeatedly insists, that “the tide of war is receding.” It’s true that if we withdraw from wars, the tide of war may seem to recede. If we abandon Iraq, we will have no casualties—for a while. If we draw down in Afghanistan, we’ll have fewer casualties—for a while.
But tides that go out come in again. We can pretend that the tide of war ebbs and flows according to our wishes and convenience. But we know better. Douglas MacArthur was right when he said, a half century ago, “the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’ ”
Our failure isn’t really one of understanding. It’s one of courage. We say the tide of war is ebbing as an excuse for not facing up to our duties. And so, as our allies in Israel fight their war, and as our soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan fight ours, we turn away, and wish it needn’t be so, and pretend it needn’t be so.
Less than 30 years after Churchill’s tribute to Britain’s airmen, Philip Larkin commented on the new Britain in which he found himself. One hopes Larkin isn’t also describing the new America in which we find ourselves:
Homage to a Government
Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
We want the money for ourselves at home Instead of working.
And this is all right.
It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.