EDITORIAL: War and Remembrance

Jewish Light Editorial

It was strangely ironic that the meteoric fall of the career of General Stanley McChrystal came during the very period of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, during which another distinguished and brilliant general, Douglas MacArthur, was relieved of his command because of his own hubris (Greek for unmitigated chutzpah!). 

Columnists and commentators of all stripes and ideologies, hawks and doves, Democrats and Republicans, supporters and opponents of the Afghanistan War agreed that McChrystal’s astounding lack of judgment in allowing Michael Hastings, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine more than a month of unfettered, uncensored and on-the-record access to McChrystal and his loyalists. The group, who called themselves “Team America,” were so full of themselves that they thought they could get away with comments that disrespected and challenged the authority of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the entire civilian command structure. Their comments were were so harsh that the President had no choice but to decisively fire McChrystal by accepting his resignation. Obama was also wise to promptly name General David Patraeus as the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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It is a bedrock principle of the United States of America, enshrined in our Constitution that the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces is the democratically elected and civilian President of the United States. If McChrystal had been allowed to stay on, even in the aftermath of his latest apologies (he had shown some serious lack of judgment in previous incidents, such as the inaccurate early descriptions of the death of Pat Tillman), Obama’s authority and that of future Presidents would have been seriously compromised – at the same time the United States is involved in two wars.

Despite his flaws, McChrystal deserves great credit for his success in the counter-terrorism strategy in Iraq, which resulted in the virtual crippling of Al Qaeda in that country. Petraeus is highly respected by leaders of both parties and he is expected to gain Senate confirmation for his new appointment promptly.

The great philosopher George Santayana is famously quoted as saying, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The histories of wars in which America and the State of Israel have been involved underscore both the wisdom and limitations of that immortal observation. Often leaders learn the wrong lessons from the previous war with disastrous results.

The French built the Maginot Line to prevent another German invasion, only to have Hitler’s Nazi troops do an end run around the cement barrier to utterly defeat France in the spring of 1940. Israel, which had gained supremacy of the skies on the eve of the historic 1967 Six-Day War, were stunned in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War when Egyptian teenagers carrying shoulder-launched Stinger missiles inflicted lethal damage on the Israeli Air Force in the early fighting.

The Afghanistan War is now the longest war in American history, even longer than the Vietnam War, which cost the lives of 58,000 American troops, and many times longer than the three-year Korean War in which 54,000 American troops died in the service of their nation. To date, a total of 1,055 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan.

Just as was the case with the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War, there have been growing questions about whether it makes sense to continue our major military involvement in the Afghanistan War. The very month in which McChrystal was fired was the deadliest month for American troops since the war began in 2003 in response to the horrific terrorist attacks on 9/11, which were comparable in scope to the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet on December 7, 1941.

But World War II was fought with a unified home front and with a clear and widely supported policy of seeking the utter defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militaristic Japan – an objective that was achieved by what Tom Brokaw calls “The Greatest Generation.”

The brave men and women in Afghanistan who fought under McChrystal and who will be fighting under the command of General Petraeus deserve to have a clearly defined mission. Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times, asked in a recent column, “Just what will we ‘win’ if we do ‘win’ in Afghanistan?”

That’s a very good question. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has openly courted the very Taliban who are the focus of our mission. The most recent efforts to gain the “hears and minds” of the Afghan people have been threatened. The 30,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s “surge,” have not turned the tide, and the “deadline” for withdrawal by the middle of 2011 is increasingly murky and indefinite.

There is general agreement that General Petraeus is the best qualified leader to take command in Afghanistan, and his confirmation is expected to be approved by a nearly unanimous vote in the Senate.

That same kind of unity of purpose as to exactly what our mission is going to be in Afghanistan from this point forward is urgently needed to assure that the lives and limbs of our brave troops and those of our allies will not have been lost in vain