As a cadet at West Point I studied military history every year. We absorbed the lessons of warfare from The Peloponnesus to Viet Nam. World War II took up a great portion of our studies, not so much for the lessons that old-style warfare could teach us - although there were many of those - but for the changes that war wrought on our world and their long-lasting effects.
This past week or so has brought the anniversaries of two great events in WWII; The Battle of the Bulge - which signaled the closing act in the European Western Front; and the attack on Pearl Harbor. On Monday's local Public Radio broadcast, an interviewer was speaking with veterans of the Battle of the Bulge and today, discussions of Pearl Harbor were everywhere. I saw countless pictures of veterans, well into their dotage, standing as tall as possible with their ribbons and their old uniforms draped over gaunt frames.
All of the coverage was aimed at preserving the memory of those times and those battles and although all wars have their horrors and their atrocities on all sides, it really was the "last good war." If there can be said to be such a thing. As I looked at the wrinkled and wizened faces of these veterans and thought of our newest veterans, I had a thought that was, perhaps, terrible - or maybe just one that shouldn't be spoken aloud while fervently wished for.
What if, I thought, when the last of these veterans have had Taps played for them, we forgot about their war?
Not literally of course; history will see to that. But many of these men and their sons and grandsons have had a profound impact on our government and on our foreign policy. They have made those decisions in the light of their memories of World War II. But the experience of those who've fought since then is different. Certainly nobody would call either Korea or Viet Nam a "good war." And while Gulf War I went quickly and relatively painlessly (at least for our side), certainly nobody will come away from our current debacle in Iraq with fond memories.
Maybe, when these old men are gone, then we can begin the process of developing a more realistic, a more adult view of warfare and the horrors it imposes on the world. Perhaps as the memories fade into the pages of history books, the more recent memories, seared into a new generation or two will hold sway over our public psyche. It might be only then that Americans can truly learn the lessons that even the ancient Greeks knew. War is hell.