Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Remembering the Veterans of the “Savage Wars of Peace”

Lawrence Kaplan raises a good point in the New Republic: why aren’t we having parades on Memorial Day, or on other occasions for that matter, to honor Iraq War veterans? Our reticence to honor the current crop of heroes stands in stark contrast to the ticker-tape parade held in 1991 in New York’s “canyon of heroes” to honor Gulf War vets.

I agree with Kaplan that the failure to honor our recent vets—and those still fighting in Afghanistan—is shameful. But it is not unexpected. The Gulf War was the kind of neat, tidy, short, decisive conflict—or so it appeared at the time—that makes for easy and pleasurable chest-thumping. The current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are something else: long, messy, untidy counterinsurgencies where it will not be clear for decades after the fact whether our efforts succeeded or not. And unlike the Gulf War (which everyone supported, if only after the fact), the two more recent wars have created deep, uncomfortable divides in our society.

In this respect the current conflicts remind me of the Indian Wars, the long series of frontier clashes that were fought by the U.S. Army from its earliest days until 1890. Those veterans too were denied victory parades; they were more likely to appear in the newspaper when they were massacred (e.g. the Battle of the Little Big Horn) or when they were themselves accused by Eastern humanitarians of perpetrating war crimes against the “noble savages” (as indeed sometimes occurred).

It would be nice if all of our wars fit the tidy model of World War II, starting with an attack against us and ending with the unconditional surrender of the enemy, to be followed by the lionization of those who fought as the “Greatest Generation.” But most of our history has been more messy than that. Americans must come to terms with the nature of “small wars” and realize that even if these conflicts lack a moment of triumph such as the surrender on the USS Missouri, they are nevertheless an important part of our national defense—and that those who fight in the “savage wars of peace” (as Kipling called them) are every bit as worthy of respect as the veterans of our handful of big wars.