By way of preface, I think Mr. Helprin and I might differ on the criteria used to choose the instances in which America sends its young to fight and die on foreign soil. But once that decision has been made, he and I are in lockstep with regard to what I referred to in an earlier post as “The Wall of Indifference.”
If you read nothing else about Memorial Day on the occasion of Remembrance 2011, may I suggest that you read this? And if you have any doubts as to the author’s credibility to support his opinions, be sure to check out his biography at the end. Mr. Helprin knows of which he speaks.
Memorial Day Beyond Stone and Steel
Our best tribute is probity and preparation, shared sacrifice, continuing resolve, and clarity in regard to how, where and when to go to war.
By MARK HELPRIN, May 28, 2011 on markhelprin.com:
Largely out of touch with the tragedies of war, America sends often principled and self-sacrificing volunteers to suffer and die in our behalf. We call them heroes and salve our consciences in a froth of words. Or, among those of us who will fight only if the Taliban come to Beverly Hills, and probably not even then, congratulate ourselves for being intelligent enough not to volunteer. Then we go about our business, either satisfied that we are appropriately patriotic or assuming that as we face only imagined dangers we need not lose sleep over the unfortunates who pursue them, often unto death, leaving behind broken and grieving families who suffer a pain that never goes away.
On Memorial Day, we pause at the graves of lost soldiers and make speeches that sometimes open to view the heartbreak and love that are their last traces. But this is not enough, because they do not hear, and because those who will have followed in the years to come will not hear. Love is not enough, rationalization not enough, commemoration a thin and insufficient offering. The only just memorial to those who went forth and died for us, and who therefore question us eternally, cannot be of stone or steel or time set aside for speeches and picnics.
We should offer instead a memorial, never ending, of probity and preparation, shared sacrifice, continuing resolve, and the clarity the nation once had in regard to how, where, when, and when not to go to war. This is the least we can do both for America and for the troops we dispatch into worlds of sorrow and death. Once, it came naturally, but no longer, and it must be restored.
First, and despite the times, is the demonstrable fact that throttling defense in the name of economy is economical neither in the long nor the short run. Not if you count the cost of avoidable wars undeterred. Not if you count the cost of major world realignments that lead to overt challenges and adventures. Not if you count the cost—in money, division, demoralization, decline, death, and grief—of lost wars. Is there any doubt that a relatively minor expenditure of money and courage could have kept Germany in its place and prevented the incalculable cost of World War II?
A public that otherwise professes deep loyalty to its troops is in the name of economy stripping down their equipment and resources, making it more likely that they will fight future battles against forces both gratuitously undeterred and against which they may not prevail. This is short sighted, tragic, hardly a memorial, and in fact an irony, in that other than in redeploying a portion of our wealth from luxury to security, military spending has always been a spur to the economy, as history demonstrates and every member of Congress with military facilities or manufactures in his district knows.
Nonetheless, the greatest economy—of lives, money, strategy—is found in neither the diminution nor the accretion of forces but in the wisdom and precision of their deployment and the adoption of feasible goals. It is neither possible nor desirable to build nations while simultaneously trying to conquer them with inadequate force. (Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the oft-mentioned counter examples of Germany and Japan had been decisively defeated and were heirs to different traditions of governance.)
And what opponents of the United States could not be delighted that the current administration, in the name of unrealizable ideals, has made a project of destabilizing the whole world by abandoning friendly countries and allies because it is too delicate and self-concerned to tolerate that they are at times unsavory? President Obama would undoubtedly praise this in FDR, but apparently to him the co-operative states and allies he has undermined are neither as warm nor as fuzzy as Stalin.
When in defense of our essential interests we do go to war, not only must we carefully determine war aims—and thus dictate to the enemy the time, place, and nature of battle rather than chasing him into the briar patch of his choosing—but we must accomplish them massively, overwhelmingly, decisively, and, if necessary, ruthlessly. For anything other than minor operations this requires the consent of Congress, a declaration of war, and the clear statement and unflinching prosecution of our objectives. Rapid shocks cost less in lives, ours and theirs, than wars that drag inconclusively for a decade. We must make our enemies understand at the deepest level of apprehension that if we are attacked we will be quick and they will be dead.
We can construct a genuine memorial to the patriot graves in Arlington and thousands of other cemeteries only if we abandon the many illusory and destructive assumptions with which the weakness of the present will burden the future.
We will fail to assure the national security if we assume that we will not be drawn into two wars at once; if we do not provide a surplus of material power; if we believe that “conventional” war is a thing of the past; if in the name of false economy we do not apply our full technological potential to our arsenals; if we imagine that technological advance will carry the day in the absence of strategic clarity and the proven principles of warfare; if we make the armed forces a laboratory for the hobby horses of progressivism; and if our political leaders, very few of whom have studied much less known war, commit our troops promiscuously, in service to tangential ideology, with scatterbrained objectives, and without what Winston Churchill called the “continual stress of soul” necessary for proper decision.
Only the dead have seen the end of war, which will not be eradicated but must be suppressed, managed, and minimized. This cannot be accomplished in the absence of resolution, vigilance, and sacrifice. These are the only fitting memorials to the long ranks of the dead, and what we owe to those who in the absence of our care and devotion are sure to join them.
Born in 1947, Mark Helprin was raised on the Hudson and in the British West Indies. After receiving degrees from Harvard College and Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he did postgraduate work at the University of Oxford, Princeton, and Columbia. He has served in the British Merchant Navy, the Israeli infantry, and the Israeli Air Force.
He was published in The New Yorker for almost a quarter of a century, and his stories and essays on politics and aesthetics appear in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The New York Times, The National Review, American Heritage, Forbes ASAP, and many other publications here and abroad.
Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, former Guggenheim Fellow and Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute, and Adviser on Defense and Foreign Relations to presidential candidate Robert Dole, he has been awarded the National Jewish Book Award, the Prix de Rome, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, 2006, and the 2010 Salvatori Prize in the American Founding, among other prizes.
Translated into a score of languages, his books include A Dove of the East & Other Stories, Refiner’s Fire, Ellis Island & Other Stories, Winter’s Tale, Swan Lake (with illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg), A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir from Antproof Case, A City in Winter, and The Veil of Snows (both with illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg), The Pacific & Other Stories, Freddy and Fredericka, Digital Barbarism, and A Kingdom Far and Clear.