The harrowing World War II movie Twelve O'Clock High begins with a postwar bald and bespectacled Dean Jagger (Colonel Harvey Stovall) riding his bicycle out to an old airfield in Archbury, England, that years earlier had been home to the 918th B-17 Bombing Group of the 8th Air force. As the nondescript Jagger walks along the weed-infested airbase and rusting bombers, the movie unfolds as one long dreamlike flashback of the horrors of what daylight bombing over Germany in 1942 entailed and the courageous men who used to take off from the now eerie, abandoned runways.Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.
Talk about intelligence failure, tactical obtuseness, and strategic naiveté sending B-17s in broad daylight over Germany in 1942-3 was all that and more. Without fighter escort, operational experience, or much knowledge of precision raids, thousands of Americans were blown apart trying to take out the industrial heart of Hitler's Europe, which spanned from the Atlantic Ocean to the gates of Moscow, guarded by the world's best anti-aircraft artillery and veteran German fighter-pilots in high-performance ME-109s and FW-190s. There really were once things far worse than Fallujah.
In juxtaposing the dreadfulness of what the airmen went through (centered around the bravery and eventual breakdown of group Commander Gen. Frank Savage) with the calm of the post-bellum English countryside, director Henry King reminds us how easily we forget horrors of the immediate past. No one in the town, or indeed back home in America, other than the families of the dead, recalled a Bishop, Cobb, Wilson, or the thousands of Savage's anonymous flyers who perished in doing their part to bring down the Third Reich. The tragedy of Stovall's war, King seems to suggest, is that the inferno in the skies was but a blink of the eye from its dividends of victory and rural tranquility and that we all are of short memory, allowing even the worst nightmare to retreat into the oblivion of everyday life.
I fear the same may be said of Afghanistan and even Iraq in a year or two. Indeed, we already see how few talk of what it was like in the very dark days of September 2001. The country was reeling from 3,000 murdered; a trillion dollars were lost to economic dislocation; and the prospect of going 7,000 miles to the other side of the world to root out Dark-Age killers that had grown emboldened by a decade of American appeasement was considered too frightening.
Do we now remember the impassable peaks, the snowy haunts of the Taliban that were too high for us, or Kabul, the dreaded graveyard of all imperial expeditions? It was just a few months ago, it seems now, that we were admonished about the fury of retaliation to come for daring to fight during Ramadan, the impossibility of working with a nuclear and Islamic Pakistan, and the Wild West nature of Afghanistan's tribes so impossible to forge into the stuff of consensual government. And it was worse still than all that: the cries on the hard left of millions of refugees to come; the European warning about thousands of dead from indiscriminate American bombing; the need to adjudicate 9/11 by jurisprudence rather than arms; and the crazy conspiracy theories of pipelines, neo-cons, 'Jews,' Likuds, and CIA plots.
Have we also already forgotten the controversies, the buzz, and the insider conventional wisdom that consumed us during the days of uncertainty over Mullah Omar's televised rants; Osama's promises of an American graveyard in the Hindu Kush; the diplomats' trial balloon of a proposed coalition government with the wretched Taliban; the panacea of an all-Islamic peace-keeping force; Johnny Walker Lindh's conflicted high-school years; and a thousand other crises of the hour that sent our statesmen into all-night emergency sessions, our generals into desperate improvisations, and, yes, Americans into battle and on occasion to their deaths?
Do we remember all this and more when we talk nonchalantly now of elections in Afghanistan or the decency of the Karzai government? Is there a Frenchman or a German to be had at least to say in retrospect, "Yes, you were not the cowboys we slurred you as, but brought something good where there was only evil before"? Do we ponder if but for a second how improbable indeed, how absolutely preposterous it was at the time to even suggest that the Afghan people would soon stand in line hours to vote, freed from those who had so sorely oppressed them?
Have we forgotten what foul and cowardly folk the Taliban were thugs who lynched women, shot homosexuals, blew up civilization's icons, destroyed a century of culture in Afghanistan, promised us death and worse, and then ran out of town in the clothes of women with what plunder they could carry? Do any of us recall the brave Afghans and Americans, both the planners in Washington who were libeled and the soldiers in the field who routed these butcherers?
So, I think, it will be too even in Iraq, improbable as that may now seem to some. Already we have forgotten the long ride to Baghdad when our ex-generals warned of thousands of dead to come in a deadly siege, and were trumped by relief workers who assured us of millions more refugees. Then there were the cries of defeat when our forces plowed through a windstorm as our supposed Dresden-like shock and awe were suddenly mocked not as too terrible but as laughably impotent. We grow depressed now at the canned pessimism of our talking heads who predict failure in post-bellum Iraq forgetting that these same prophets swore to us just months ago that thousands would die getting to Baghdad.
The disappointments with the looting, the museum desecration, the shoot-out with the Hussein progeny, the flight of the U.N., the insolence of Saddam in the docket, the Halliburton pipeline, and more was hyped and forgotten as the 24-hour news cycle sought out new prey. And it found it aplenty: The furor over embalming the corpses of the Hussein "princes"; the lack of respect shown Saddam during his televised dental exam; the worldwide horror of Abu Ghraib juxtaposed to the worldwide silence over the thousands in mass graves and the televised beheadings; the lectures by "humane" folk in Europe and the U.N., who looted the Hussein kleptocracy and cared not a whit for the thousands who were starved and shot so that Europeans, Chinese, and Russians could profit with a monster.
Does anyone at all remember any of that? And where now are Joe Wilson, Richard Clarke, Hans Blix, and all the other wizards of the moment, come and gone off the media shows and best-seller lists, who assured us that we were either liars, fools, or naifs? Do we remember now how the old Wesley Clark once praised the team of George Bush, how the old Anonymous wrote an earlier book warning of Saddam's ties to al Qaeda, or how the old Clintonites a decade ago insisted that Saddam Hussein was brewing WMDs?
Yet despite them all, and after this bloody month of November, here we are now on the eve of elections the most unlikely of all events in the last half-century of civilization. Just think of it: In place of the past Hussein mass murdering and the present ogres of Fallujah, we are to witness an effort to jump-start democracy in the heart of the caliphate of old, right between the world's worst two governments in Syria and Iran, amid treacherous folk like the Saudis, Jordanians, and al Jazeera cheering the insurgents on. How did we come this far and get so close, when the unprincipled such as Jacques Chirac shunned the once-wounded democrat Allawi and sent his plane instead to fetch the murderer Arafat a profiteer in the guise of a 'leader' who hand-in-glove with Saddam Hussein made France billions in Iraq and then lectured about morality to those who slammed the cash register drawer on his stealthy hands. How could we ever contemplate the chance of elections when the Saudis, the Syrians, and the Iranians sent millions of dollars and thousands of jihadists to stop it all lest the virus of freedom spread?
All this we must not forget. We have come too far and too many have died to cease or even pause. In the name of the dead Americans, those lost of the Coalition, and the resolute Iraqis who were butchered by both Saddam and then by the Islamic fascists, let the January election proceed as promised. If Bill Clinton could run America with 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992, if Lincoln could conduct a war after receiving 40 percent in 1860, and if the Supreme Court could adjudicate the electoral mess of 2000, so then the Kurds and the Shiites, if need be, can hold elections in Iraq with participation of 70 percent of the people. As for the Muslim clerics, Saddamites, and al Qaedists of the Sunni triangle, rest assured that there will be elections and you shall all end up on the wrong side of history. How absurd it is that the Sunni Triangle is the heart of an insurrection that feeds off either subsidy, appeasement, or the indifference of its citizenry, only then to plead that its own malfeasance should earn special dispensation from others who chose hard work and sacrifice and the chance for democratic law. Let them participate in history or watch it steamroll by from the sidelines but let them not stop it.
There may well be even more terrible things to come in Iraq than what we have seen already, but there will also be far better things than were there before. And there will come a time, when all those who slandered the efforts the Germans, the French, the American radical Left, the vicious Michael "Minutemen" Moore, the pampered and coddled Hollywood elite, the Arab League, and the U.N. will assume that Iraq is a "good thing" like Afghanistan, and that democracy there really was preferable after they had so bravely weighed in with their requisite "ifs" and "buts" to the mass murders of Saddam Hussein. Yes, they will say all this, but it will be for the rest of us to remember how it all came about and what those forgotten soldiers and people of Iraq went through to get it lest we forget, lest we forget....
(Merci to Gregory)