What Makes a War ‘Good’?

by on July 23, 2019 · 0 comments

in Politics, War and Peace

By Joni Halpern

Since 1896, Ohio voters have picked the winning candidate in all but two presidential elections – 1944 and 1960 – giving rise to the state’s renown as a “bellwether” to which candidates cannot afford to turn a deaf ear.  If Ohioans are going to be so influential, maybe we could help inform their future choices by sharing some concerns from the Golden State.

Dear Ohio,

I was wondering if Ohioans could give a little thought to what makes a war “good.”

Your answer might be important as we listen to the increasing thunder of American leadership shaking their fist at passersby on the world stage.  After all, wars conceived are not wars remembered.

Our lasting impression of any war is its true outcome.  If people could agree about what makes one war good and others bad or even forgotten, it might help us evaluate the use of our military might.  That could help us choose our next president.

Except for the Revolutionary War, which we mark as our starting point, we must reckon with the fact that the American memory of war is short.  Conflicts like the War of 1812 no longer count, because most Americans have no idea we even fought them.  It doesn’t matter that James Madison and George Washington worried themselves silly trying to steer clear of the War of 1812 until the American military was better able to take on the British.  It doesn’t even matter that right after winning the War of 1812 on our own soil, Americans felt it defined them as a country.  What matters now is that modern America has forgotten the War of 1812, so it can’t be a good war.

The Civil War can’t be a good war either, even though almost everyone knows it occurred.  It was a terrible war, a sorrowful conflict that tore brother from brother as the nation cleaved itself in two.

Even after it was over, and a reconstituted nation legislated against slavery, the gash between North and South never really healed.  In the North, the Civil War was memorialized as a triumph over slavery; in the South, as an attempt to bring the dominant white citizenry to its knees.

As Black Americans migrated to other parts of the nation, the rest of us white people have, with little success, tried to deal with the discomfort and fear of sharing full citizenship with people many still quietly believe are inferior.  An unfinished outcome that spilled the blood of our American family cannot be deemed a good war.

World War I promised to be a good war at first.  “A war to end all wars,” that would “make the world safe for democracy.”  The music was rousing, too.  But the invitation to war was given the cold shoulder by most Americans who could have cared less about Europe’s constant power struggles.

Eventually, however, reports of atrocities, the sinking of a passenger ship that killed 128 Americans, and an intercepted telegram alerting us to the possible loss of American soil helped impel American entry into the war.  Not long after the war was over, Americans believed there had been no lasting positive impact to justify the loss of almost 117,000 of their countrymen.  World War I is not remembered as a good war.

But World War II was a “Great War,” and those who fought it now belong to “the Greatest Generation.”

In the beginning, however, World War II did not appeal to Americans.  We were still bitter over the broken promise of World War I.  There also was substantial pro-German and anti-Jewish sentiment in our country, even though news of the denigration and punishment of Jewish populations in German-held lands had reached the U.S. prior to our entry in the war.   Americans did not view this as a reason to enter the war.  Neither was there reason in the near-loss of almost 340,000 British, French, Polish, Belgian and Dutch troops at Dunkirk.

It was only after Pearl Harbor – an attack on American soil – that public sentiment turned.  As American soldiers joined the great battle, they began to see for themselves the depravity and brutality evil leaders had exerted against their own countrymen and nations far and near.  It was the defeat of unbridled tyranny, brutality and genocide that finally fixed World War II as a “good war” in the memory of Americans.

After World War II, there was no shortage of wars for Americans, but there were no more “good wars.”

Among our numerous conflicts were the Korean War (an outgrowth of the Cold War), Vietnam War (similarly described), the Invasion of Grenada (a feel-good war supposedly waged to rescue 600 American medical students), the Gulf War (historians have not yet agreed on the political machinations that started it), and finally, the current wars which now have raged for almost 20 years.

None of these have earned acclaim as good wars.  True, they all have similar features – lives lost, wounded coming home to broken families and despair, early promises of how the war would keep our freedom intact, but nothing really definitive accomplished.  We are still at war in Afghanistan after entering in 2001 to rout the Taliban that housed and nurtured Al Qaeda.  Today, the Taliban are our preferred partners in attempted peace talks from which we have excluded the elected government our military fought to create and protect.

Now we hear American leaders beating the drums for possible new wars.  The “Greatest Generation” is almost gone, Dear Ohio.  What will we call the thousands of men and women who sacrifice their lives in future not-so-good wars?  With 12 wars and almost five dozen “conflicts” in nearly 250 years of our existence, someone needs to ask presidential candidates how they will identify military outcomes so satisfying that we, along with the men and women we send to fight them, will remember them as “good.”

We’re counting on you, Dear Ohio.  Keep asking until someone answers.



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