Archived Opinion

Will we ever learn history’s lessons of war?

By Michael Beadle

World wars, civil wars, the Crusades, wars of rebellion and independence. Why does humanity continue to go to war when the cost of destruction and loss of human life end up becoming more than we can possibly imagine?


It’s a moral question too often neglected and too little considered until after the damage is done.

As the U.S. continues to sink its boots deeper in the quicksand that is Iraq, questions keep piling up for a war that has silenced more than 3,300 U.S. soldiers, injured tens of thousands more Americans, and left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead or wounded with millions more displaced. The pricetag for this catastrophe will cost American taxpayers more than $500 billion dollars (with some of these billions still missing or unaccounted for). Even once-hawkish politicians are joining sideline strategists in criticizing the most ill-planned occupation in the history of the American Empire.

Do we stay? Do we leave? Do we commit more troops? Do we set benchmarks for Iraqis to take back their own country? What will those benchmarks be? How do we set up a timetable for departure? Do we wait until the next President is elected?

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With the War in Iraq dragging into its fifth year and troops being deployed on their second and third tours, the comparisons to Vietnam are not so far-fetched any more.

Sure it’s a different era and a different region, but with a lack of clearly defined objectives and a strong insurgent enemy adapting more ominous guerrilla tactics, the words of George Santayana continue to haunt us: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

In that theme of offering up words of wisdom, let us call to mind some of the generals and political leaders who had first-hand knowledge of the largest, most horrific war in the history of this planet: World War II.

It was a war waged on three continents, a war that would claim 62 million lives — an estimated 40 million of those being civilians. That latter number nearly equals the number of every man, woman and child now living in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida — combined.

Looking back in retrospect, even the greatest generals realize the utter failure of what war is and wonder why human beings cannot learn from its tragic lessons. Never again, we say. Again and again.

Here’s former Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in a 1953 speech nearly a decade after his service commanding U.S. forces in World War II:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

Still another World War II leader, U.S. Army Gen. Omar Bradley, offered his thoughts on what atomic power would mean for the future.

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants,” Bradley said. “We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

And though the human race soared high enough to put a man on the moon and spin satellites beyond the realm of the solar system, the dove of peace still flies under the shadow of a giant mushroom cloud.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the horrors of war as well as anyone. “I have seen war,” he said. “I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, perhaps the most eloquent of all First Ladies, once posed the question: “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?”

Meanwhile, across the pond, the Nazi German commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goering articulated the reasoning behind war that a good many will find alive and well today — even in the halls of our own legislatures. Cold and calculating, Goering makes war propaganda sound so matter-of-fact, so easy in the hands of trusted leaders:

“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Fast forward half a century and let us read over the words of our current U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. In 1991, appearing on the ABC program, “This Week,” Cheney, who was then Secretary of Defense, was asked why Operation Desert Storm had not gone all the way to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

“I think for us to get American military personnel involved in a civil war inside Iraq would literally be a quagmire,” Cheney replied. “Once we got to Baghdad, what would we do? Who would we put in power? What kind of government? Would it be a Sunni government, a Shia government, a Kurdish government? Would it be secular, along the lines of the Baath party? Would it be fundamentalist Islamic? I do not think the United States wants to have U.S. military forces accept casualties and accept responsibility of trying to govern Iraq. I think it makes no sense at all.”

If the War in Iraq has indeed become what Cheney had foreseen 16 years ago, if our greatest leaders and generals have told us again and again throughout history that no war produces true victory, will we learn to put the wisdom of George Santayana to use in our own lifetime?

Can American military leaders and politicians begin to come to a consensus on the inevitable — an exit strategy from Iraq? Using any and all means of diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors, will American leaders finally allow the Iraqi people to make the key decisions to govern their own welfare?

History will judge us by our courage of our leaders to stand strong and make the right decisions. Let’s hope these decisions will honor those who came before us who did not die in vain and those generations still yet to come who will inherit our commitment to peace.

(Michael Beadle is a writer and teacher who lives in Canton. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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