It is a grand sight that fills the chest with a feeling larger than mere loyalty … with the swell of patriotism.
When I completed my two years of active service in the U.S. Navy, in a time of peace between the wars in the late 1950s, there were no bands playing or flags waving.
There was only the yawn of barely curious acquaintances and friends at the University of Alabama asking, “Where you been? I hadn’t seen you around for awhile.”
I won’t bore you with reasons for interrupting my college career or with adventures on the high seas … there were some, but you don’t want to know.
My Navy career began with a rude bang, a satisfying moment, long boring days, and ended as a press aide and speechwriter for an admiral who never gave a single speech and who avoided the press.
About the rude bang, my first duty at port on a floating grocery ship, the USS Alstede AF48, was forecastle phone talker transmitting messages to the bridge. A multi-tattooed Chief Boatswain Mate looked over the hull and turned to me with this message for the bridge, “Fortyfathomyatthewatersedgenineo’clocktaking lightstrain.”
I answered, “Huh?”
The chief slapped off one of my earpieces and shouted: FORTYFATHOMSATTHEWATERSEDGETAKING LIGHTSTRAIN.
Since he put it that way, I dutifully reported to the bridge the condition of the anchor, and in a moment had the satisfaction of transmitting this message:
What reminded me of this exciting episode is that Sunday at church, in honor of Veterans Day, all veterans were asked to stand. As I began to rise with some difficulty, my pew mate, a lifelong friend, whispered, “It will surprise a lot of people to see you standing.”
I’m not sure what he meant by that; maybe it’s my horseshoe of white hair that might indicate I’m a World War I veteran, but at any rate I did not continue standing but sat down because I don’t believe peacetime service deserves any accolade.
But it got me to thinking how often we have put our services in danger, and how popular and effective such projections of military power have been. The results may surprise you as they did me.
World War II was the last time a president has asked Congress to declare war. In my opinion, it was also the last war that was noble, necessary and effective. Here’s the list, two of which — Vietnam and Iraq — we slid into on a slope of deceit:
1950-1953 Korean War; 1961 Bay of Pigs, Cuba; 1961-1973 Vietnam War; 1985 Dominican Republic, fearing a repeat of Communist Cuba, Johnson sent troops to put down a leftist uprising; 1970-1980 a rare decade of peace; 1982 Lebanon; 1983 Grenada; 1989 Panama; 1991 Persian Gulf War; 1993 Somalia; 1994 Haiti; 1994-1995 Bosnia; 1999 Kosovo; 2001 Afghanistan; 2003 Iraq War.
All these wars and police actions were popular in the beginning. The bands play and the flags fly when Johnny goes marching off to war; the glory of the scene hid the gore of combat, which inevitably followed.
Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars. When Harry Truman left office with Korea frozen in stalemate, he was one of the most unpopular presidents. His own cabinet did not appear to see him off, only the mannerly Secretary of State Dean Acheson was at the train station to salute his decisive, common-man chief.
Similarly, George W. Bush slunk out of town as one of the most unpopular presidents in history, having left us with the muddle of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever you may think of President Obama, you may agree with him that, according to a study by Brown University, we did not get our money’s worth from the $3.7 trillion we’ve spent on Iraq and Afghanistan.
The era of peace that is coming — no matter how short — will not be as thrilling as the beginning of a war, but a sense of well being may lead to a victory at the polished table of diplomacy.
If so we can celebrate. We do not like long, wrong wars, but we do love a parade.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.