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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010

Our wars touch only the troops

 •  Fate of Iraq war memorials unclear

By Richard Halloran

As Americans this Memorial Day honor those who died in their wars, for many it will raise the inevitable question: Has it been worth it?

In stark terms, how many mothers and fathers have asked themselves in the dark of night, their heads on tear-stained pillows, was it necessary for our son or daughter to die fighting for America? Is our nation any more secure for his or her ultimate sacrifice?

For those who remember the 405,399 Americans killed fighting the Axis powers in World War II, the answer is most likely an easy "yes" because the Germans, Italians and Japanese of the 1930s and 1940s threatened to drive Western civilization back into the Dark Ages. The Americans and their allies saved the Western world.

Only five years after WWII, however, 54,246 Americans died in the Korean War of 1950-1953. Although those hostilities ended in a truce that persists today, the U.S. and the United Nations notified the Soviet backers of the North Korean aggressors that Moscow's expansionist plans would be thwarted. The Cold War ensued.

In Vietnam, where 58,220 Americans were killed and 103,284 were wounded from 1954 to 1973, the answer to the central question is more contentious. Despite the courage and dedication of those who fought there, the U.S. was divided as it had not been since the Civil War and was eventually defeated. An argument still rages today among the Vietnam generation as to whose fault that was.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam is that the outcome didn't make much difference; America is no more or less secure today than it might have been had the war never been fought. Communist Vietnam does not threaten the U.S. or its allies or friends and U.S. interests in Southeast Asia proceed without hindrance.

Following the war in Vietnam, the U.S. was engaged in a series of skirmishes, each of which took a small toll. Even so, the deaths of the men and women in Iran (eight), Grenada (12), Lebanon (265), Panama (18), the Persian Gulf (383) and Somalia (43) were no less painful for their families and continued to raise the central question.

Now the U.S. is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with casualties reported daily by name. As of last week, 4,404 Americans, including 108 women, had been killed in Iraq and 1,076, including 20 women, in Afghanistan. That means nearly 5,500 families are likely asking themselves: Is America more secure for the death of our son or daughter?

It must be harder to answer that question today because the armed forces of the U.S. are fighting those wars alone. President Bush and President Obama alike have asserted that America is a nation at war, which is patently untrue. The Army and Marine Corps, and to a lesser extent the Navy and Air Force, are at war but the rest of the nation for the most part goes about life as if Iraq and Afghan-istan did not exist.

Sen. James Webb, D-Va., was a decorated Marine in Vietnam and later wrote a book, "Fields of Fire," about that war. One passage applies to Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Marine sergeant reporting from the U.S. tells his platoon leader:

"Lieutenant, you'd hardly know there was a war on. It's in the papers, and college kids run around screaming about it instead of doing panty raids or whatever they were doing before, but that's it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids go to college. It's like nothing really happened, except to other people. It isn't touching anybody except us."

The sergeant had it exactly right, then and now.