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The Test Ahead for America By: Karl Zinsmeister
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 05, 2004


Over the last year or so, I have spent three months embedded with U.S. fighting forces on the streets of Iraq, and I’ve written two books about the war from the viewpoint of the Americans and Iraqis doing the dirty work of remaking a broken society. My latest book about the counterinsurgency and reconstruction is much more optimistic than the conventional wisdom in today’s highly negative mainline media. I do not, however, pretend that finishing the job in Iraq is going to be a cakewalk. As decent Iraqis begin to take back the reins of their country, and Americans celebrate the anniversary of their own revolution, this is a good time to reflect on the tests that lie ahead for us in Iraq.

When I returned home from my last stint in modern-day Babylon, the military men and women I shared my flight with were mostly headed back on emergency leave. A major had lost a grandfather. A sergeant based in Germany was going to collect his family, then fly to Arizona for a relative’s funeral. A private quietly explained that his wife, six months pregnant, hadn’t felt their first baby move for some time, went to a doctor, and learned they had lost the child. He said, “I’m still in shock. We struggled so hard to conceive.”

Not only in war, but even in the safety of our families, life can often be hard. It is always fleeting. Its meaning comes, ultimately, from the causes toward which it is dedicated.

In 1918, Teddy Roosevelt’s son Quentin (who had left Harvard during his sophomore year to serve in World War I) was shot out of the sky in one of aerial warfare’s early dogfights. German propagandists took photos of his maimed body amidst his plane’s wreckage and, hoping to dampen American morale, mailed one to Mrs. Roosevelt. (It’s an old tactic. Substitute “posted on the Web” for “mailed” and you can see that nothing much changes in the behavior of bastards.)

Edith Roosevelt, however, refused to be cowed. She insisted that the picture of her son’s crumpled body be displayed and cherished as a symbol of her family’s sturdiness and their pride in sacrifice for a high cause. As I traveled across Iraq with American soldiers this spring, I thought of what that tough lady did. She pushed aside her own grief, which was surely enormous, and expressed admiration and undying love for her son by celebrating his bravery—and, most importantly, by refusing to abandon his fight.

There is a tendency to think that national and individual greatness are built on dominating power, but that’s not always the case. “It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will conquer,” wrote Irishman Terence MacSwiney. What separates victorious people and nations from others, quite frequently, is simply their ability never to be crushed—to absorb disappointment, hurt, and failure, and turn these into something productive.

Today’s Iraq war is measuring the ability of Americans to maintain our nerve and determination amidst some rough blows. Previous generations of Americans bore heavy loads to neutralize the threats to freedom posed by fascism and communism. Today, young Californians, and Nebraskans, and New Yorkers face a new test.

The war on terror is not something any American would have chosen, but the terrorists sought us out. And they won’t just leave us alone, so walking away is not an option. Today’s battles along the Tigris and Euphrates are thus an unduckable test of our current generation. Freedom, as the saying goes, is not free, and if our society ever runs out of men and women who understand that, then we’re living on borrowed time.

There has always been a blood price to be paid for protecting America’s historically rare way of life in a dangerous world. As far back as the 1600s, the Puritans who founded this country endured casualties at seven times the rate of World War II to defend their settlements. In any serious war, there will be harsh and depressing setbacks. It’s generally people who are simply too stubborn to quit even in the face of all that who prevail.


A few years ago, writer Michael Kelly worried that among American elites, there are “fewer and fewer people who perceive what even twelve-year-olds in less coddled places understand: That there are things worth dying for.” As Kelly noted, sometimes “accepting death is indispensable to defeating death.” Our elites are in high panic over Iraq, but among the massive middle of the American public I believe a majority understands Kelly’s sober truth, and remains prepared to act on it.

But this will undoubtedly be tested by more hard blows between now and the critical elections in Afghanistan (September), the U.S. (November), and Iraq (early 2005). Like the steely Edith Roosevelt, Americans must not let ourselves be intimidated, or demoralized, or beaten. We must show we have the one simple, stubborn quality exhibited by great warriors, great leaders, and great nations throughout history: Endurance.

--Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise (TAEmag.com) has just published Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq, the first book about Iraq’s guerilla war and reconstruction. His previous book about the 2003 hot war is Boots on the Ground: A Month With the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq.



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