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Growing up with loving parents in a small town in rural Wisconsin has not given me many occasions to feel moral indignation. But sitting in front of my computer monitor two weeks ago and listening to the stories of massacre and systematic death in Srebrenica, I was shocked. Exasperated with rage, I sat motionless and listened to the anxious voice of the radio broadcaster while a collage of emotions, ranging from anger to sorrow, flashed through me.
I led a peaceable childhood in a world of certainty. My mother was the type of person who would endlessly answer the repeated questions "why" asked by all her children. My father was the type of person who would sit with his children and explain away their fear of the dark. In these and many other ways, my parents showed us not to be afraid of things that we did not understand. They provided us with a broader perspective on the things that we saw happening around us. They created a foundation from which we ourselves would eventually analyze and understand the world.
It was in this atmosphere that I was educated and learned to love America. I learned about the basic and incredibly stereotypical things associated with American history: the Constitution, the pledge of allegiance and inalienable human rights. Gradually, I started to learn more than just the history of our great leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy '40 and George Washington. I began to learn the values that drove these people and motivated them; I started to learn about things that I could believe in. I don't ever remember being taught a partisan view of these individuals, although they too were flawed. I just remember that they were people who believed in something greater than the now; they had a vision of a better tomorrow. In many ways, I took from their visions and started to learn what it meant to be free.
But two weeks ago, from halfway across the world, came a situation that made me question my faith in the leadership of America and the principles for which this country stands. Although I have always tried to avoid naively accepting the statements of leaders as truth, I will admit that I have always put a lot of faith in the people who lead. The leaders who had assumed the role of the political prophets from my childhood, however, had nothing to say. No one was creating direction. President Clinton vacillated between bellicose threats of NATO air-strikes, as the United Nations shrank under the pressure of the Serbian army. The Western world deplored the actions of the Serbian army as barbaric, but it could not formulate a coherent policy. As the despotic, maniacal Serbian General Ratko Mladic surrounds, strangles and slaughters one U.N. "safe area" after another, Western leaders quibbled.
I am not an expert on the history of World War II, but I have been made aware time and time again that the United States did not enter the war to stop the extermination of the Jews. Although I have known this for many years, I have also harbored an inner desire to believe that if America had known of the enormity of the crimes that the Nazis were committing against the Jewish people, it would, if possible, have redoubled its efforts to stop the atrocities.
What is happening in Bosnia should not be mistaken for or equated to the Holocaust. The sheer magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jewish population of Europe outweigh the crimes committed by any group in the former Yugoslav Republic. But something of the same concept is ineluctably present. The motivation to destroy another person or group of people simply for having some cultural or religious characteristic, regardless of new tags like "ethnic cleansing," echoes too strongly of genocide. And that is where I thought that America drew the indelible line between right and wrong. Regardless of situational complexities, regardless of circumstance, I have always believed that America would not tolerate genocide. If genocide is not worth stopping, then what is? If genocide is not wrong, what is?
One of the wonderful, yet tragic, things about a democracy is that the people who fight in the wars of democratic states are citizens of those states. Those citizens are family members and friends. War for most democracies is not one of detachment, where an army of mercenaries can be hired and told to fight. A war in a democracy, and specifically in America, means that American children will die. The hope is that there will be fewer wars, because only wars that are absolutely necessary will be fought.
A quick glance at the military history of America over the last century paints a picture far from utopia and peace. Indeed, after fighting two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and many other small conflicts, it is hard to not ask why there were so many conflicts and why they were fought.
Iclearly remember being a first-year in high school when the Persian Gulf War was fought. George Bush heralded the fight as one for the freedom and human rights of the people of Kuwait. At the time, I vehemently championed the sincerity and truth of President Bush's statements, against the somewhat more skeptical comments of my older friends. I argued that the Persian Gulf War was not being fought for materialistic reasons but to keep safe the dream of democracy for those abused by tyrants. My vision of the moral rectitude of the Persian Gulf War has faded through the years.
Saddam Hussein committed many human rights violations and is undoubtably a hostile aggressor, but is what Saddam Hussein did to the people of Kuwait any more egregious than the slaughter that General Ratko Mladic is spreading across Bosnia? Simple analysis of the total number of civilians killed in each conflict allows almost anyone to conclude that the war in Bosnia has been more destructive than Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait. Why, then, will America fight for Kuwait and not for Yugoslavia?
Similarly, Ronald Reagan felt it justified to risk American lives to oust Manuel Noriega. Reagan's media correspondents justified the war by claiming that Noriega was involved in drug trafficing, human rights violations and the abusive control of power through a squad of thugs who enforced a reign of terror. The validity of some of these claims is supported by empirical evidence. In hindsight, however, it seems all too apparent that the battle was fought because the interests of American merchants were being threatened.
If Reagan was fighting the war in Panama for the democratic rights of those people and against human rights violations, why did he choose not to send American soldiers to Ethiopia, where yet another military dictator was abusing the basic human rights of many and causing a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians? The examples of abusive human rights practices by petty dictators from all over the world are endless. The reason why the United States became involved in Panama, it can at least be conjectured, is because the political instablity that General Noriega represented was too great a financial risk for the president and the nation to handle. Control of the Panama Canal had become too ambiguous, so America sent its children to protect the profits of merchants.
I am suspicious of simple answers, so I am conscious of the many simplifications that my arguments contain. But although I do not pretend to understand entirely the complicated motives of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, I find it extremely hard to believe that either president acted out of some idealistic desire to protect basic human rights and democracy in Panama or Kuwait. The motives behind their actions seem almost transparent, and it is tempting to label them nothing but materialistic.
It is understandable that President Clinton is hesitant, even fearful of repeating the tragedy of Vietnam. It is so very important to learn from the lost lives, hopes and dreams that came from Vietnam. Bosnia is not Vietnam.
Whether or not Vietnam was a just was is a question that I cannot pretend to answer. The history behind Vietnam is terribly complex and almost impossible to unravel even in hindsight. The men that fought and died in Vietnam should be honored to the fullest extent possible. America called them to serve, and they went. But, for all the pain and suffering that it caused so many people across the world, Vietnam is done. For all it was and was not worth, Vietnam is done, and policy makers of today can not let the shadows of the past control their actions today.
James Russel Lowell, the famous Harvard English professor and 19th century abolitionist poet, wrote with regard to learning from the past, "[W]e make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free." Just as it is so easy to create an anachronistic philosophy of life out of an old truth passed down from previous generations, it is also easy to let our fears of repeating the past hold us prisoner. President Clinton can't let go and let the past be the past.
There is an old saying: "Generals are always fighting the previous war." In World War I, generals staunchly believed that the only way to take land was to charge--an idea they inherited from the previous generation of generals, like the generals in the American Civil War. The strategy of charging in our Civil War may have won battles, but it could not be used effectively against the machine guns of World War I. But the French and British generals refused to see that technology had progressed and that military strategy had to as well. They were fighting the previous war and would not learn the new lessons being taught with each gruesome battle. The generals at Flanders were fighting previous wars as they sent their boys leaping out of the trenches to almost certain death. Their inability to let the past go cost thousands of young men their lives. In the same way, President Clinton's inability to let go of Vietnam is costing thousands of Bosnian Muslims their lives.
I am by no means attempting to formulate foreign policy in this discussion. Public policy is far too complicated to explicate in a short essay. Furthermore, it seems that foreign policy only serves to obsfucate and clutter the principles of a situation. This editorial is also not meant to be the statement of a vainglorious 20-year-old, starry-eyed and dreaming about the glory of war. I understand, as William Sherman stated, that "war is hell" and that everybody loses. I understand that war is about dying, and I would be one of the first ones to be drafted. Finally, understanding that I am just a young man from a rural town in Wisconsin, I know that my chances of survival would be small. But some things are worth fighting for.
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