This long weekend I devoured Rick Atkinson's latest brilliant offering, "The Day of Battle," a profound and gut-wrenching account of the war in Sicily and Italy in 1943 and 1944. Atikinson won a Pulitzer Price for his work, "An Army of Dawn," the first part of his about the Allied effort in Europe in World War II. "The Day of Battle" is part two in the series and just as good as its predecessor. Reading Atkinson's work during the Veterans' Day commemoration is fitting, of course. But none of us have to go back 64 years to read about or see the devastation war brings to people here, there, and everywhere. And what was most striking to me about Atkinson's work were the similarities between the military and governmental war effort he described and the one in which we now are engaged in Iraq. As Richard Burton put it, in the classic World War II movie The Longest Day, "I suppose it's always like that, in war…"
So, as I'm reading about how the Allies miscalculated (or simply didn't pay enough attention) to the need to rebuild the Italian infrastructure in liberated territory, the side burner of my brain is heating up with thoughts about how many of those same mistakes were made in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Atkinson writes about how time pressures sabotaged effective post-occupation plans (what with Stalin and all pressing for a second front in Western Europe). But even when we have plenty of time to plan a war--- Iraq being a "war of our choosing" remember—we can't seem to get the post-fighting part right.
As I'm reading Atkinson's poignant descriptions of U.S. soldiers braving unmentionable horrors climbing up hills or scattering among rocks in brutal heat two generations ago I naturally think of today's soldiers in Iraq, dodging (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) suicide bombers and IEDs and the countless other things Iraqi insurgents have developed to kill our sons and daughters and husbands and wives. Atkinson writes about the way soldiers improvised their equipment to better protect themselves. In Iraq, GI's refurbished their own Humvees when the government couldn't.
As I am reading about the colossal mismanagement by US leaders—caused by petty jealousies, poor judgments, and callous disregard for life—which helped make the Sicilian and Italian campaigns the bloodbaths they became I think about the countless ways in which our modern-day leaders, governmental and military alike, botched their crucial opportunities to do things right in Iraq. Poor planning, bad strategies, doomed tactics—no war, no country, no administration has a trademark on those.
And no country or administration has a trademark upon disservice to its returning veterans. Politicians and others talk endlessly about what we owe to our soldiers, the living and the dead, in words that are so trite that they have lost meaning. But there is a passage late in Atkinson's book (which he attributes to the legendary Bill Mauldin, the war correspondent) that cuts beyond the clichés to highlight why a government that sends young people to battle to die owes them so much more than our current soldiers are getting from the scandalous Veterans Administration.
On Memorial Day 1945, Lucian Truscott,the Fifth Army Commander, spoke at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, "a seventy-seven acre sanctuary where almost eight thousand military dead would be interred." Truscott turned his back on his living guests, Mauldin wrote, and then turned to the dead in "the most moving gesture" Mauldin had ever seen." In Mauldin's words:
In war, old men (and now old women) make decisions which cause brave, young men (and now women) to die or become wounded, always with honor but sometimes without cause. The least those old men and woman can do, then, is cherish the dead and ensure the best for the wounded. Sometimes in our history we have done a good job of meeting these sad and noble responsibilities. Other times, like now, we have not. Our leaders don't just owe our wounded soldiers nifty words at a microphone; they owe them the competence and compassion and the courage to take care of them.
He apologized to the dead men for their presence here.
He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that
men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his
heart that this is not altogether true. He said he hoped anybody
here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he
realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances…
He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially
old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would
straighten them out.
There is no political statement here. Democrat leaders have botched wars and the treatment of soldiers and so have Republican leaders. And in our current struggle politicians of both stripes have been far too slow to make things better for Iraqi veterans. It doesn't matter which side of the divide you are on; war is a terrible, confused, wasteful, brutal thing which in our history, and in the history of the world, tends to extract its damage and pain mostly from the young, and the innocent, and the brave. It's always like that, in war. But it shouldn't always be like that in this country for the soldiers who by the grace of God find their way home.