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Why We Fight

When I lay down I thought and said

Perhaps tomorrow I may be dead

 

Yes, I shall stand with all my might

And for sweet liberty will fight.

-- Lt. James McMichael

 

Two days after speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, President Bush attended a Maryland Republican Party fundraiser in Baltimore. But war itself, and not the GOP's political war chest, was on the president's mind, and after dutifully lauding Gov. Robert Ehrlich as a "great leader" and a "good man," Bush abruptly told the donors he wanted to share his thoughts on war and terrorism.

The president then explained, as he often has, how the lethal attacks of 9/11 brought unwelcome lessons home to the United States, particularly that there are evil people in the world with whom no president can reason, or even negotiate, and that the only alternative is to fight. In a seamless transition that always riles his critics, Bush segued from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to Saddam Hussein and Iraq:

"I saw a threat. As a matter of fact, the world saw a threat with Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "See, he was a state sponsor of terror; he had used weapons of mass destruction.... He invaded his neighbors; he was shooting at U.S. pilots. He was given a lot of United Nations Security Council resolutions to change. He refused to change. He chose war."

That quick litany included five distinct rationales for the invasion of Iraq. Others have been cited as well: In the run-up to the 2003 invasion, Bush suggested that Middle East peace would be easier to reach if Saddam were removed from the picture. Bush said a thriving democracy in the region would inspire other Arab peoples to insist on their own freedom. He ruminated emotionally about "rape rooms" and other human-rights outrages in Iraq.

 

Another justification that has been given greater emphasis in recent months is the nature of democracy itself. Woodrow Wilson famously said that America entered the war in Europe in 1917 -- then known as the Great War -- because "the world must be made safe for democracy." Bush has turned this phrasing around to explain an even more ambitious philosophy: Insisting that democracies do not wage war on one another, Bush says that the U.S. must spread democracy to make the world safe.

On May 31, 2006, in Baltimore, Bush condensed all claims about the healing power of democracy into a single, animated sentence, one so brief that he skipped a verb. "Democracies," he declared, "don't war!"

This is a recurring theme in Western politics, and previous U.S. presidents have voiced it many times. It is an optimistic appeal to a citizenry that considers itself peace-loving but is aware of its martial history. According to our hymns and holidays, when Americans take to the battlefield, we are fighting for freedom. Propaganda aside, that's certainly part of it. The words of Lt. James McMichael cited above have proven enduring: He was a soldier of the Continental Army, fighting under George Washington.

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"He was a very good soldier, too, even if he was a very bad poet," says Bruce Chadwick, author of The First American Army, a book that relies on the diaries of Revolutionary War troops. "He was married only 10 days before going to war. The thing I was struck with was that you could easily take the sentiments of the men fighting in the 1770s and put them in the mouths of the men and women in uniform today."

Of course, the sentiments of the troops in the field, let alone the statements emanating from the White House and the halls of Congress, are hardly the last word on the morality or the logic of a particular war. And a question that was in the air more than two centuries ago lingers today: Are Americans too quick to fight?

Americans themselves wonder about this issue. On the one hand, we have few illusions about our natures. Asked in a 2005 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll whether they considered themselves "violent," fully 49 percent of Americans responded affirmatively. (In Canada, France, Holland, and Spain, 60 to 64 percent viewed us that way.) Yet the only modern poll that directly asked Americans to gauge their tendency toward militarism was taken in November 1991 after the Persian Gulf War. Asked by CBS News whether Americans were "peace-loving" or "warlike," respondents chose peace-loving by a ratio of 75 percent to 17 percent.

Deep down, many of us know we are both.

The Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war, drafted to be read aloud -- to troops and would-be troops of the new nation -- in hopes that it would spur them to action. It certainly did on July 9, 1776, when read publicly in New York City. A crowd that included some of Washington's soldiers responded by melting down a statue of King George III that stood at the foot of Broadway and Bowling Green, and then forging the lead into bullets.

The United States subsequently won its independence on the battlefield. In the 223 years since, Americans have fought 11 other major wars -- defined as those in which more than 1,000 Americans died -- and dozens of smaller ones. Americans defended themselves from reconquest by the same power they defeated in the Revolutionary War; expanded their territorial boundaries in one-sided wars with indigenous people and with both northern and southern neighbors; avoided splitting in two in a horrific Civil War; took island territories away from European powers in fighting from the Philippines to Cuba; made a decisive entry assuring the end of the First World War; responded to attack -- and saved democracy around the globe -- in the Second World War; spent more than a dozen years cumulatively in two bloody and indecisive wars in Asia; and launched two wars in the Persian Gulf within 15 years.

The dichotomy between our peaceable self-image and this long military record helps explain why presidential nominees, including presidents running for re-election, promise peace, yet as commanders-in-chief end up delivering war. This was true of such disparate men as Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon -- and both presidents named Bush.

Presidents are more than just the leaders who take us to war. They are the living personification of Americans' dual natures. Amid this tension between our peaceful yearnings and our warring impulses emerges a central question: Why do we fight? Bush calls spreading democracy around the globe the "calling of our time." The current generation of Americans can decide whether they agree. But almost every generation of Americans has been confronted with this choice. Each generation's answer helps define the national character of this country and determines the futures of people in much of the rest of the world.

Burger, Fries, and a War

The United States of America was only a dozen years old when Immanuel Kant, a philosopher from East Prussia, promulgated the theory that this new concept of self-rule was the seed that would end all wars. In 1795, Kant penned Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, envisioning not just the end of war in a democratized world but also a road map for getting there: anticipating not only the United Nations ("the League of Peace") but also a kind of NATO forerunner -- an international alliance with one strong republic as its fulcrum. Contemporaneous events on Kant's continent, however, were showing how easily government of the people could become government of the mob.

The French were the first people inspired by Thomas Jefferson and company to throw off their monarchy. But even as Kant was writing his ode to peace, La Revolution had morphed into La Terreur, leaving a Corsican corporal in charge of a deadly imperial army. But it wasn't Napoleon who disproved Kant's theories. It was Kant's own seemingly enlightened Germany, where in the 20th century, a nominally democratic people unleashed two of the most fearsome wars in history on their neighbors.

Today, George W. Bush has a familiar riff in his stock speeches in which he marvels at the fact that he meets regularly with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to discuss Iraq. Lest anyone in his audience miss the point, Bush adds that his father fought against the Japanese, when they were a fascist power, not a democracy. The president forecasts that the "leader of a free Iraq" will be negotiating with an American president over some other stubborn hot spot in world politics.

Before the 2004 election, Bush asked Koizumi if he minded his using this example, and the prime minister graciously consented. But Koizumi knows that this story doesn't go over so well in Japan. The Iraq war is unpopular, even though Koizumi has enlisted his government in the "coalition of the willing." Moreover, Japan was a fledgling constitutional monarchy in the early 20th century and had held elections before the militarists took control, as happened in Germany. The Japanese know that their forebears were partially complicit in their government's brutal decisions of the 1930s and 1940s -- and they aren't fully comfortable with the excuse that Bush is offering them.

With that example in mind, political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder looked at the war-torn former Yugoslavia, and concluded in their 2005 book, Electing to Fight, that nations in the process of democratizing may be the most dangerous of all. Lacking the rule of law of established democracies and the order of totalitarian governments, these nations find that they have empowered a ruthless faction of their society that is either violently nationalist or sectarian.

This is what happened in Germany and Japan. Some scholars fear it could be happening again before our eyes in Iran or Russia -- or perhaps even in a reconstituted Iraq. "I've always been suspicious of this 'democracies don't start wars' rationale," says Stanford historian David M. Kennedy. "We not only get dragged into wars, sometimes we go looking for them."

Before the first Persian Gulf War, several letters to the editor in newspapers around the country (the blogosphere did not yet exist) questioned an even more basic part of Kant's premise, and used the words of a notorious Nazi war criminal to do it. The statements come from Hermann Goering and were made in a private session with a German-speaking Allied intelligence officer, Gustav Gilbert, who in 1995 put them in a book, Nuremberg Diary.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering told Gilbert. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

When Gilbert pointed out that there is a difference -- that in a democracy the people have a say through Congress or other elected leaders -- Goering responded: "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Goering was a cynic and complicit in mass murder, but long before the rise of the Third Reich, and even before Kant's essay, a man who was neither was poking holes in the "paradox of perpetual peace." His name was Alexander Hamilton, and writing The Federalist Papers in support of a strong central government, he scoffed at the notion that the colonies would automatically live in peace if left to their own devices. This was already a popular idea, but Hamilton, noting that the ancient and warlike city-states of Athens, Carthage, and Sparta were republics, was having none of it:

"Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships, and desires of unjust acquisition that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?"

But "American Exceptionalism" is a resilient mind-set, as is American optimism, and modern U.S. presidents persist in justifying armed intervention with the seemingly conflicting logic that democracies don't go to war.

"Democracy is far from perfect," President Reagan said in 1984 at a proclamation ceremony for Captive Nations Week. "But democracy does not wage war on its neighbors." In his second term, Reagan amplified this point in a Radio Marti broadcast into Cuba. "Democracies are always more peacefully inclined than totalitarian dictatorships, because the people can restrain the excesses of their leaders. But however strong and deep our affinity for the Cuban people, we cannot solve their problems."

Reagan was being both idealistic and pragmatic -- a good combination for a president -- but he was also displaying a selective memory. America has often attempted to solve the problems of its island neighbor. The U.S. wrested Cuba from Spain on the battlefield, thanks in part to the Rough Rider exploits of future president Theodore Roosevelt, and attempted regime change in 1961 with a failed CIA-organized invasion that humiliated President Kennedy and emboldened Fidel Castro.

Mindful of such quibbles, Bill Clinton was a bit more careful when he made the same point in 1993. Addressing the nation's diplomatic corps two days before his inauguration, the president-elect said, "History has borne out these enduring truths: Democracies do not wage war against one another."

The pop-culture version, espoused in 1996 by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, was: "No two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other." After Clinton associated himself with this idea, political scientist Timothy J. Lomperis of St. Louis University asserted in a paper that "the diminutive German professor of 1795 [Kant] has re-emerged in a curious reincarnation from Hope, Arkansas."

Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, cautioned Friedman that McDonald's franchises were not sufficiently indicative of a society's success to be a predictor of stability, adding, "I would not be surprised if in the next 10 years several of these McDonald's countries go to war with each other."

Before the decade was out, the United States and NATO, under Clinton's direction, bombed Serbian soldiers in Kosovo -- and government buildings, military facilities, and bridges in Serbia's capital. In so doing, Clinton ran afoul of Friedman's "Big Mac" rule.

The NATO bombing campaign began on the 11th anniversary of the opening of Belgrade's first McDonald's.

The Terrible Sublime

"There never was a good war or a bad peace," Benjamin Franklin once asserted.

Raised a Quaker, Franklin had abandoned pacifism years before he penned that sentiment to Josiah Quincy on September 11, 1783, and he wasn't writing out of regret about the Revolutionary War. Rather, he was expressing the sentiment that Americans' triumph had made future wars unlikely. But Franklin died three years before the madness began in Paris, and he never saw the killing fields of Antietam or Verdun, which might have rekindled his pacifism, or Auschwitz, which would have extinguished it.

Moreover, Franklin knew something else that should have tempered the Founders' optimism. He knew that the issue of slavery had merely been put off for another day. "The seeds of the Declaration of Independence are yet maturing," John Quincy Adams said in 1820, referring to the slow march toward Emancipation. Adams also feared that this crop's harvest would be "the terrible sublime," as it must be in an armed conflict that pits brother against brother.

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln rhetorically shifted his rationale for war from an argument about preserving the Union to one about ending slavery. It cost Lincoln support in border states, led to riots as far north as New York City, and undercut some support among conscripts, particularly the foreign-born. But it reinforced the war effort by galvanizing Northern abolitionists, keeping France and England out of the fight, and prompting the enlistment of thousands of black troops.

"It succeeded because it was always the case," says Russell D. Buhite, a history professor at the University of Missouri (Rolla), who edited a book, Call to Arms, documenting the language used by wartime U.S. presidents. "The origins of the Civil War were slavery -- and that was true for Lincoln, too, although he doesn't always say so at the beginning of the war."

Union troops sang "John Brown's Body" as they marched into Southern towns, liberating slaves and putting them to work -- for pay -- in the war effort, and writing home about their pride in crippling this "scourge" of an institution that, in the words of a doomed Pennsylvania farm-boy-turned-soldier named Hiram P. Sprague, "was the worst of all."

Looking at American history in one way, the entire course of the United States is one of steadily expanding the "self-evident" rights to groups of people on these shores and far away who don't yet have them -- slaves, women, immigrants, Germans, Japanese, South Koreans, Vietnamese, Afghans. Sometimes this work is accomplished peaceably in a courtroom or a legislative hall by men and women who invoke the precepts of the Declaration of Independence. Other times it is done at the point of a gun. But the work never ends. Today, Americans are wrestling with extending those "unalienable" rights to gays and lesbians at home -- and Iraqis abroad.

It seems to be something that Americans can be proud of. But war entails killing, which the Bible warns against, and the noble cause of extending liberty is of scant consolation to the dead -- and has a way of dehumanizing the living.

"If you stand for freedom, anyone on the other side is, by definition, the enemy of freedom -- whether it is Britain during the Revolution, Mexicans in 1848, the Spanish in 1898, Germans, Russians," says Columbia University historian Eric Foner. "Thus, we seem to believe that war is always thrust upon us by evildoers, to use a phrase of President Bush, so going to war does not alter our peaceful identity."

Americans do not think of themselves as empire-builders, either, and liberals as well as conservatives cheered Colin Powell's rejoinder to the question from an impertinent young European who asked in 2002 whether the United States was the "Satan of contemporary politics."

"I would say we are the Great Protector," Powell responded. "We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved

Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it ... all in the interest of preserving the rights of people. And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, 'OK, we defeated Germany, now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us?' No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems, which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land?

No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead."

Powell was echoing presidents from Wilson to LBJ, but critics of the current war believe that it's not that simple, and that there are other kinds of empire. Foner points out that Jefferson spoke of the United States as an "empire of liberty," and that President McKinley insisted during the Spanish-American War that ours was a "benevolent imperialism," and that in 1942, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called for the United States to assume the role of "dominant power in the world" in what he called "The American Century."

Among the battlefield triumphs spanning the globe, from Bastogne to Iwo Jima, it was easy to lose track of the fact that war is -- or ought to be -- the last resort. It was also easy, says Boston University history professor Andrew Bacevich, for hubris to set in once the United States achieved Luce's dream of military dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a 2005 book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, Bacevich argues that this is precisely what has happened -- and that the bogged-down mission in Iraq is the inevitable result. "Today, as never before in their history, Americans are enthralled with military power," wrote Bacevich, a former U.S. Army officer and a Vietnam veteran. In an interview, he explained that this phenomenon began before 9/11 -- initially in response to Vietnam -- and escalated recently under the Bush administration.

"Even before 9/11, Americans had become infatuated with military power and were expressing renewed confidence in the American mission to transform the world," he said. "There is nothing new about the latter. What's new today is the conviction that our mastery of warfare puts us in a position, as never before, to aggressively pursue that mission."

This is a perilous position, for both the military and the nation, adds Gregory D. Foster, Bacevich's West Point classmate who now teaches political science at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at National Defense University.

"What we have, and virtually what every other state in the world has, is a military establishment that is all about waging war," he says. "I'm calling that into question. If the military is to be strategically effective, we need to think differently about what militaries do. I envision a military that has a bona fide interest and expertise in nation building, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and even disaster response. Admittedly, our military is currently involved in those types of things, but by virtue of culture, structure, equipage, and state of mind, it undertakes them grudgingly."

For the past two years, Foster has gone to Indonesia. The first year, he faced palpable skepticism from that nation's officer and diplomatic corps over U.S. aims in tsunami relief. Last year, as it became clear that America's motivations were simply those of a good Samaritan, he said the climate was markedly more receptive. Foster believes that the American military did itself more good in the Muslim world with a few Navy ships dispensing foodstuffs, medicine, and equipment than it has in three years in Iraq. He adds, though, that none of it comes close to making up for the harm done by the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.

"The dire consequences of that event," Foster predicts, "have yet to be fully realized."

Remember the Maine?

Americans were not always as sanguine about the repercussions of war as they appear to be today. If denying African-Americans their freedom was incongruous with the Declaration's promise, it took the Civil War to redeem what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Founders' promissory note. The results were as terrible as Adams had predicted.

Soldiers from both North and South would evoke the Spirit of '76 in their letters home, but the truth was that George Washington lost fewer men in eight years than Robert E. Lee lost in three days at Gettysburg or that Lee and Union Gen. George B. McClellan lost in a single day at Antietam. By the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, 620,000 soldiers had died in battle or from disease; an additional 412,000 had been wounded, many grievously, all in a nation of 34 million people.

The grim numbers were imprinted on America's psyche.

"My earliest recollection," Woodrow Wilson said many years later, "is of standing at my father's gateway in Augusta, Georgia, when I was 4 years old, and hearing someone pass and say that Mr. Lincoln was elected and there was to be war."

Wilson's aversion to modern war was a feeling he shared with those in the nation he would one day lead. Wilson also knew that war talk of the 1850s had left North and South unable to converse with each other. Incivility had led to contempt, contempt to hatred, and hatred to war. As Europe exploded in fury in 1914, Wilson wanted no part of it -- and urged Americans to avoid taking sides even in conversation.

"Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned," he said. But positive thinking did not stop Kaiser Wilhelm II's U-boats, did not spare the 1,200 civilians murdered aboard the Lusitania when it was torpedoed without warning, and did not bring the French or the British to the bargaining table.

Wilson won re-election in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." But in January 1917, the kaiser announced a resumption of submarine warfare, and on March 1, a cable was made public in which a German foreign minister proposed to the Mexican government that it join Germany in a war against the United States. Four weeks later, a grim-faced Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war.

"We have," Wilson said, "no quarrel with the German people." It was an eerie precursor. In 1939 as the Wehrmacht was overrunning Poland, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain used the exact same phrase, adding as his caveat: "except that they allow themselves to be governed by a Nazi government."

In our time, both presidents named Bush have repeatedly insisted that the United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people -- only with Saddam Hussein. Many Iraqis beg to differ. For Americans, the lingering question is how we managed to get into this fight.

For answers, the nation looks to George W. Bush and his cadre of top advisers, as it should. But just as the word "Iraqi" can be substituted for "German," the reasons are eerily reminiscent of earlier American wars.

Think WMD is a new issue? What are submarines, if not weapons of mass murder? Airplanes? Rockets? On August 2, 1939, 30 days before Adolf Hitler launched World War II by overrunning Poland, Franklin Roosevelt received a letter from Albert Einstein alerting the president that a new field of physics had opened up the possibility of "extremely powerful bombs of a new type." Einstein told FDR that the Germans were duplicating American experiments with enriching uranium, having commandeered the element from a mine in Czechoslovakia after occupying that country. On April 9, 1940, the Germans captured a heavy-metal facility in Norway -- and the race for the atomic bomb was on.

Another perennial reason that democracies go to war is that they are attacked. Or they perceive that they are under attack. Americans didn't get serious about the War of 1812 until the British burned the White House two years into it; about World War II until the Japanese sank the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 Americans; or about the war on terrorism until Arab terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, killing 2,900 people. In such cases, it is easy to rouse Americans to war.

But what about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 -- how did we fall for that? The most egregious example of a phony provocation was probably the sinking of the USS Maine, which was moored in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, when it was suddenly rocked by two huge explosions that killed 266 of the 350 men aboard. Hearst newspapers and other jingoists blamed Spain. So did Congress, which, after a cursory investigation, declared war. When that war ended, Spain had lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. As for the Navy, it finally admitted in 1976 that a coal-bunker fire aboard the Maine most likely caused the disaster.

Fifty years earlier, the United States had relieved Mexico of all of the land north of the Rio Grande that was not part of the Louisiana Purchase. This wasn't costly, either, except -- once again -- to the United States' reputation in the Southern Hemisphere.

"James Polk sold the Mexican-American War on the grounds that Mexicans were shedding American blood on American soil," history professor Buhite said. "Actually, they were shedding American blood, but on disputed soil. But this is nothing new. The wars and interventions of this type include lots of exaggerations and shadings of the truth."

The Sunshine of Human Rights

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," Bush said in his second Inaugural Address. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

Liberals reflexively criticized the speech as pretty, and insincere, words disguised as support for an unsightly mess -- namely, Iraq. Conservatives thought that Bush meant what he said and, horrified, immediately denounced it as Wilsonian. Independent-minded historians agreed.

"It's Wilsonism on steroids!" David Kennedy says.

Ambitious, yes, but presidents are ambitious people. So are Americans. This speech harked back to the words, deeds, and sentiments of many of the (Democratic) presidents of the 20th century, from Jimmy Carter's emphasis on human rights, to John F. Kennedy's vow to pay any price and bear any burden, to Franklin Roosevelt's vision of a world where freedom is universal.

In his "Four Freedoms" speech to Congress, FDR called for freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear "everywhere in the world." It was that magic phrase -- repeated each time -- that gave the speech its loft, its rhetorical power and memorable quality. Roosevelt spoke in the context of a European war that just two months earlier he had promised Americans the United States would stay out of -- knowing that this was impossible -- and 11 months before Pearl Harbor. But after the United States was attacked in Hawaii, few Americans publicly questioned why we were fighting.

Why We Fight is the title of a contemporary book by conservative commentator and former Republican Cabinet member William J. Bennett. The message is implicit in the subtitle: "Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism." Why We Fight is also the title of a thought-provoking, 2005 anti-Iraq-war documentary by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, which raises a familiar specter in the populist strain in American politics -- the specter of profiteering.

In Roosevelt's day, Why We Fight was a series of World War II propaganda films directed by a major in the Army Signal Corps named Frank Capra. The series was commissioned by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. It never mentioned Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews. Producer Steven Spielberg didn't commit this oversight in the gripping HBO series Band of Brothers. In it, "Why We Fight" is the title of the most heartrending of the 10 episodes -- the one in which Easy Company liberates a German death camp.

We fight so others may live, and live free.

From afar, as the American mission in Iraq seems to be running aground, it is easy to scoff at the administration's high-minded sentiments. This is less true for the victims of the Baath Party's 25-year dictatorship, however, because it turns out that Saddam's rape rooms and killing fields were quite real. The uniformed Americans in Iraq know this, and they express pride in overthrowing that regime.

On March 19, 2003, in announcing the invasion, Bush promised to bring freedom to the Iraqi people. In speeches to the troops that night, the commanders in the field rarely mentioned weapons of mass destruction -- they told their young charges that they were going into Iraq to free a people brutalized by Saddam. "The time has come to end his reign of terror," Maj. Gen. J.N. Mattis told the men of the 1st Marine Division. "On your young shoulders rests the hopes of mankind.... Fight with a happy heart and a strong spirit."

One paradox is that during the least controversial war in the last 200 years, World War II, the fighting men did not talk that way. In fact, Gen. Marshall commissioned Maj. Capra's movies as a way of motivating the draftees who, though neither sullen nor mutinous, didn't "give a tinker's damn" about the war, in the words of William Allen White. Those men fought, we have been told repeatedly, for reasons of pride, friendship, unit cohesion, survival, and peer pressure -- not patriotism.

Perhaps that view is exaggerated. But even discounting for the reticent nature of the Greatest Generation -- especially when compared with the chattering generation of today -- a July 2003 study by the U.S. Army War College discovered something interesting: The troops in Iraq say they are fighting for all of those other reasons, too, but also for the cause of freedom.

"When we see the people ... how we liberated them -- that lifted up our morale," said one soldier interviewed for the study. "Seeing the little children. Smiling faces. Seeing a woman and a man who were just smiling and cheering. 'Good! Good! Good! Freedom good!' That lifted us up and kept us going. We knew we were doing a positive thing."

That was the first spring and summer these troops were in-country. Many of them are undoubtedly jaded by now -- and no end is in sight. Bush has indicated that he knows this, and yet he rejects out of hand any Vietnam analogies. The president physically recoils when asked such questions. Much of the rest of the country recoils as well, but for a different reason: our disquieting sense of deja vu. Because even while dismissing the Vietnam comparison at a June 14 news conference, the president was offering a final, last-ditch explanation for why the war in Iraq must be won.

"Pulling out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission will make the world a more dangerous place," he said. Whether he knew it or not, Bush was echoing Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The statement translates to many American ears this way: OK, starting this war was probably a mistake. But leaving it now would be an even bigger mistake.

"It is one we have heard before -- and it makes people angry," noted Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It is not necessarily an invalid argument, but people think 'Great, but you created this problem by starting the war!' "

Perhaps the moral of the story is that it is difficult for a people, blessed with bounty and protected by oceans, who love their freedom and expect success, to truly learn from the past.

"The liberation of Iraq is inevitable. When it comes -- and the truth about Saddam's regime spills out -- we will be proud of the stand we took. And if our subsequent support of Iraq leads to democracy, our pride should double. Democracies do not wage war against one another. Democracies do not allow their people to starve. A democratic Iraq will transform the Middle East, where ethnic rivalry, poverty, and excessive armaments will be supplanted by security, prosperity, and creative diversity."

You might expect the man who said that to be someone whose hopes and rosy worldview were tempered by life's vagaries. He served in Vietnam, where he lost part of his leg, and part of his soul. Those words were written by then-Sen. Bob Kerrey -- in 1999 -- and they can make you proud, and happy, and optimistic, and fearful all at the same time, because they are quintessentially American.

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