Remembering history on the eve of war

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the philosopher and poet George Santayana wrote. They also forget the good stuff, too.

Prior to Dec. 7, 1941, Americans were divided on how to respond to the escalating global conflict. That division ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Congress declared war on Japan with one dissenting vote. Germany and Italy declared war on America. America declared war on Germany and Italy.

In the months that followed, Americans volunteered for service or registered for the draft. During the war years, civilians across the country participated in scrap metal drives, bought war bonds, and accepted the rationing of certain foods and household items. They could hardly buy a tire because the rubber was needed by the boys overseas. Taxes, which already were high, rose even higher to a top rate of 94 percent. No one, and I mean no one, could go about their lives pretending a war wasn’t happening.

On Wednesday night, President Obama announced that the United States is expanding its efforts against its newest enemy. As with Japan in World War II, the Islamic State, or ISIS, has been committing atrocities for a while now in Syria and Iraq, but American opinion was not galvanized until Americans were killed, visibly. In 1941, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now, it’s the beheading of two journalists.

Obama announced that the United States will, among other actions, lead a broad coalition against ISIS, conduct airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and will deploy 475 additional military advisors in Iraq. He asked Congress for “additional authority and resources” to train and arm Syrian rebels. “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden” of leadership, he said.

This effort will be a fraction of the federal budget, but it will not be free. There is no question the resources will be provided. The question is, from whom? Like much of what the United States has done since 1980 – including a bunch of military actions, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan – the money likely will be borrowed. Because our blessings are not actually endless, we’ve made a habit of asking for our children and grandchildren to pay for our current needs.

Whether it involves foreign policies like the wars in Iraq, or domestic crises such as relief after Hurricane Sandy, America’s response has been consistent for decades: There’s a need, often a legitimate one, and so we meet it. Unfortunately, we tend not to count the costs, and if we do, we tend to pass them on.

I am not opposed to what the president is proposing – and unlike many, I expect he’ll do a decent enough job of carrying out his plans. But the costs of this exercise should be budgeted, and they should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere or by revenue increases. No more wars that we ask our kids to pay for.

There’s a tendency to glorify World War II. That’s a mistake, because we need to learn from actual history, not an idealized one. They had a draft back then because they couldn’t get enough volunteers. They raised taxes because they couldn’t just pass the offering plate and collect enough to pay for the war. At the end of the war, the national debt had increased to 109 percent of the gross domestic product – higher than it is now.

But Americans back then at least tried to pay their own way. They did this at a time when the entire world was in flames, when much of the available workforce was overseas, when many were grieving lost loved ones, and when the Great Depression was still a fresh memory. Everyone sacrificed – not just those who wore a uniform.

Now, like so many times in recent years, the United States is about to kill some bad people in a far-off land. Let’s hope it makes the world a safer, freer place.

If it does, it would be our world that benefits – the one we’re living in now. That means we should be the ones to pay for it, not our children and grandchildren. They already will be looking back through history at us, and, hopefully, learning from our mistakes so they don’t repeat them.

2 thoughts on “Remembering history on the eve of war

  1. Excellent point about being fiscally responsible, Steve.

    Also, we are seeing that the decision by the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq was not just the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history but one of the worst im world history, and the blunder has been repeated by the Barack Obama administration in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.

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