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by William H. Benson

December 14, 2006

     The calendar tells us that we are midway between Pearl Harbor and Christmas, between War and Peace, between an attack upon a Pacific Island and Advent.

     The history of the world constantly shifts between war and peace.  The one constant seems to be war, punctuated by fleeting moments of a fretful peace.  War disrupts people’s lives whether they are the aggressor, or the recipient, or the observer, who looks on amazed at how war can transform people into grotesque beings. 

     The twentieth-century seemed to be one of constant war across the Pacific, beginning first at the turn of the century in the Philippines against a guerrilla movement.  

     And then against the Japanese empire, the US relied upon a strategy that the historian Paul Johnson called the Jupiter-complex.  The pilot seated within a cabin at the front of an aircraft carrying bombs is like the Roman god seated upon the clouds who hurls down thunderbolts to strike those unsuspecting villagers wandering about upon the ground.

     The strategy worked only to a degree.  On Okinawa and Iwo Jima the Japanese army dug itself into the ground, into tunnels, a move that rendered the enormous firepower dropping from the sky ineffective.  It was the Army and the Marines, ground troops, who ferreted out the enemy from those tunnels with flame-throwers and hand grenades and ultimately secured those islands.

     The two atomic bombs ended the War in the Pacific, and the Americans and the Japanese cooperated in rebuilding Japan into a democracy and a capitalist country.

     In Korea during the last two years of that war, American jets carpet bombed North Korea daily, reducing the country to rubble.  One reporter said, “Every city was a collection of chimneys.  I saw thousands of chimneys and that was all.”  And so the North Koreans under Kim Il Jong have built a series of enormous underground train stations that can serve someday as bomb shelters.

     But against North Vietnam President Johnson unleashed unprecedented numbers of bombs.  The historian Stephen Ambrose wrote, “First, headlines proclaimed that America had dropped more bombs on tiny Vietnam than in the entire Pacific Theater in World War II.  By 1967 it was more bombs than in the European Theater.  Then more in the whole of World War II.  Finally, by 1969, more bombs had been dropped on Vietnam, North and South, than on all targets in the whole of human history.”

     The US military failed in its venture to build a democratic nation in Vietnam, and  certain lessons can be drawn from that failure: that firepower does not always prevail; that in the war between machine and men, men can win; and that the power to destroy is not the power to control.  “We had to destroy the city to save it,” said one officer.

     President Johnson had wanted to bring democracy and prosperity to Southeast Asia, and instead he had only brought death and destruction.

     Stephen Ambrose said that “Americans should not be engaged in nation-building.  It is costly and worse, unworkable.”

     Walter Lippmann wrote, “America can exert its greatest influence in the outer world by demonstrating that she can solve the problems of modernity.  Example, and not intervention and firepower, has been the historic instrument of American influence on mankind.”

     The Hebrew prophet Joel called for war.  “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.”  But the voice for peace argues that we should pound those swords and spears back into plowshares and pruning hooks.  Bomb shells gutted of their explosive innards and cut up would make interesting bathtubs or furniture.

     The objectives for attacking Iraq were immediately completed: we separated Saddam Hussein from his WMD’s that like a ghost had never even existed.  But another goal snuck in the back door—that of nation-building, converting Iraq into a democracy, a policy that has proven costly, unworkable, and a failure.

     At the Constitutional Convention, Pierce Butler urged his fellow delegates to “follow the example of Solon, who gave the Athenians not the best government he could devise, but the best they would receive.”  Americans in Iraq should do the same.