In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in is bosom
That transfigures you and me
As He died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
While God is marching on…
— Julia Ward Howe, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” 1861
War has been called the ultimate failure of diplomacy. But it has also been called the ultimate success of politics, since, broadly speaking, war tends to be a popular way of resolving our conflicts – especially war conducted by the best-equipped and irrepressible fighting force the world has ever seen: the armed forces of the United States.
As a nation, however, we’ve lost our appetite for war. After 10 years of constant combat – of flag-draped coffins and a bill in the billions of dollars and still growing – we’ve simply grown tired of it. I am included. Though I believe it important to stay abreast of world affairs, I’ve grown weary of hearing about and reading about war. When the conflict in Iraq began, I slept with my television tuned to CNN, waking up periodically throughout the night to see how we were advancing on Baghdad. Now, I won’t even suffer through a war update on my radio. If NPR tries to tell me what’s going on, I switch the station.
In a world where might often makes right, the United States has generally found itself in the unique position of being on the right of might. There have been times when we’ve fallen far short of this ideal. We fought to help free Cuba from the Spanish, but continued our efforts to subjugate the Philippines. We stemmed genocide in the Baltic, but sat silent as tribes in Rwanda massacred innocent women and children.
We are on the heels of just such an unjust war in Iraq. There’s no point now in trying to argue the point of whether or not this war was contrived; even those involved in its planning have admitted as much. The war was poorly planned, poorly administered and has now taken far longer and been far more deadly than was expected when forces began that long drive to Baghdad.
On top of that, the war has left us further trillions in debt and served as yet another rock tied about the ankle of an American economy that cannot seem to keep its head above water.
Still, after demonstrating the wrong way to bring democracy to a nation (by imposing it), other nations in the region have begun demonstrating the proper way, with movements growing organically and surging through the population until change and liberty are born in nations that lack a history of either.
The “Arab Spring,” as it’s been titled, has already brought change, first to Tunisia, then Egypt. Today, it appears that Muammar Gadhafi’s four decades of rule will come to an end in Libya, and atrocities continue in Syria that will only strengthen the resolve of those who oppose the régime there.
While we’ve worked through diplomatic channels to influence all these conflicts, we’ve engaged in only one: air support for the battle in Libya. And in so doing, President Obama – upon whose order American forces have acted – has been called out for not going to Congress and for stretching America’s military too thin.
But there is a difference between Iraq and Libya. A stark difference.
In Iraq, there was no open revolt before American forces invaded. The regime there was unpopular and autocratic, and many would rather see it go, but there also was no open desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Such has not been the case in Libya, where people have demonstrated a willingness to rage against irrepressible odds and surrender their lives to live free.
In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, dated Monticello, Sept. 23, 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” More than 150 years later, John F. Kennedy said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
This idea, this notion that, somehow, it is our obligation to fight for freedom, is entrenched in us. We are the lucky ones, we Americans; we were the benefactors of French interference that, to the downfall of the French monarchy, helped to secure our own liberty, and now we owe a blood debt to a world that has acknowledged the sovereignty of a nation governed not by a king of ancient title or claim, but by imperfect people in an imperfect republic who believe in self-determination.
Surely, in World War I, as American General “Blackjack” Pershing landed in France to help fend off invaders, he proclaimed, “Lafayette, we have come,” and twice did young Americans fight and die to cast off the repression of ancient empires and fascism, have we helped to pay back what the French have given us. But still we feel kindred, nigh 250 years on, with other people in other lands that long for freedom, for government that derives its power from the consent of the governed, which produces democracy in its infancy, desperate for the nourishment to grow into a hearty nation of free people.
This flame did not exist in Iraq, which we nonetheless lit and burned the country down. But it glows bright in Libya, where today rebel forces roll into the capital, Tripoli, flying the red, black and green tricolor and hunt for the head of the cowardly tyrant who used his airpower to kill his own people in the early days of protests.
We take for granted, dear reader, our rights. We take for granted that the governing document of our nation is the first of its kind in history that explains not what you can’t do, but what government cannot do; that does not read, “thou shalt not,” but that “government shall not” and then goes on to say “thou may,” “thou can,” and “such is thou unalienable right.”
But we also come from a long line of people – of fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers – who were willing to lay down their lives so others might enjoy the same freedoms as they because – when you’re an American – fighting and dying so others may be free is not just your tradition; it is your privilege.
Tonight, for the first time in a generation, Libyans will sleep no longer afraid of Muammar Gadhafi. We helped, sure, but not as we could have. Not, I believe, as we should have.