Behind us is a marble Abraham
Lincoln, architect of the crusade to free the slaves and save the
Union. Straight ahead lie the fifty-six pillars and the giant arches of
the World War II Memorial, signifying America's common purpose, when the
greatest generation united to crush evil. Anchoring the military vista,
at the far end of the Mall, is a statue of Civil War general Ulysses S.
Grant. A triumphant tale unfolds before us, with World War II bookended
by the Civil War titans, Lincoln and Grant.
This is the
type of war we love, where we fight for decisive victory, regime change,
and the noblest of ideals -- in short, a magnificent crusade. "Good"
wars like the Civil War and World War II produce epic heroes like Grant,
MacArthur, and Patton, and stirring anthems like "The Battle Hymn of
But if we broaden the view from the Lincoln
Memorial, our peripheral vision reveals a less comfortable military
narrative. Over on the right, 19 men, cast in stainless steel,
slug their way uphill, shivering under ponchos, commemorating the
1950-1953 Korean War.
The campaign started out so
gloriously -- like World War II all over again. U.S. troops liberated
South Korea, and then marched into North Korea to overthrow the enemy
regime. In the fall of 1950, Jimmie Osborne even released a celebratory
record Thank God for Victory in Korea.
But Osborne sang
too soon. China suddenly intervened and sent U.S. forces hurtling back
down the peninsula. President Harry Truman abandoned the goal of
decisive victory, and fought instead for a draw.
love this kind of war, where the objective is less than unconditional
surrender. Why should Americans, as the saying went, "die for a tie"?
The glue binding together public support for the Korean War came
Meanwhile, over to the left on the Mall, there is
an even darker vision of warfare. A sunken black wall memorializes the
campaign in South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. Vietnam was a
nation-building mission, where we stabilize foreign lands, oversee
elections, or fight insurgents.
We don't love
nation-building at all. Instead, we usually see it as a failed quagmire,
whether in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, or Iraq. We even dislike
nation-building when we succeed -- like the recent stabilization of Bosnia
and Kosovo. These missions rarely produce heroes. And instead of the
"Battle Hymn," we sing protest songs like Country Joe McDonald's
The trouble is that
America's military future may lie, not in our blinkered view of
idealized war, but in our peripheral vision of uncomfortable conflict.
Modern technology is so destructive that we can't always battle for
regime change. We might have to fight more wars like Korea, and fewer
like World War II. And the challenges posed by rogue states, failed
states, and terrorism, will likely lead the United States down the path
of nation-building again.
Tomorrow's wars may be far from a