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Lessons Of Past Wars Show How Different Things Are Now…America's Arrogance Could Be Its Undoing

Lessons Of Past Wars Show How Different Things Are Now

Gaye LeBaron

March 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Press Democrat Santa Rosa, CA. All rights reserved.

Wednesday evening, as the first missiles were falling on Baghdad, it was the hour set for the usual, same old, every semester for the past 27 years class for SRJC's Community Service program. It was the fifth of the six classes, the one where we talk about how World War I and World War II affected Sonoma County.

At 6:45 p.m., as we cruised the campus for a parking space, Dan Rather was in full battle cry and the White House had announced that the president would address the country at 7:15 p.m.

At this point, there seemed to be a serious question about the relevance of a two-hour lecture on the early 1900s. With the course of world history being altered in full view of the television audience, would anyone want to hear about the impact of old and very different wars on this small corner of the globe?

I decided if there were only a few students present I would cancel and try to cram everything I had to say into the final two hours next week.

But, lo and behold, 65 of the 87 people enrolled were in their seats and ready to rock 'n' roll through the first half of the 20th century. They chose to hear about a past that seemed, at least in hindsight, to make sense; and, for the moment at least, to ignore the present dangers.

THE ECHOES of past wars, even from the limited vantage point of a local historian, cry out to us about the differences between the battles our fathers and grandfathers fought and the ones our sons and daughters are fighting now. Is there anything in the past that can prepare us for what is to come? An unanswered question.

World War II didn't just begin, it exploded over us, particularly those of us on the West Coast.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised. But we were surprised - - shocked, afraid, angry, all those emotions that go with the word "attacked."

We were the victims, the target of an aggressor who sought to conquer us by catching us unaware. The rush of young men to the recruiting offices, the mobilization of industry for the war effort and extraordinary sacrifices on the "home front" would become sources of enormous pride to that generation of Americans.

Korea was not a war, we were told. It was a "police action." But semantics couldn't fool the 5.7 million Americans who fought a real war in the cold and mud of that Asian nation, which remains divided, remains a threat to our security -- with the dreaded WMD, weapons of mass destruction -- to this hour. Vietnam, of course, was the first of the "TV wars," but we didn't "go to war" in Vietnam, war crept upon us, one "adviser" at a time. The Gulf War provided a peek into a future that is now the present, with its smart bombs and televised explosions.

We watch now, in "real time" (a phrase that was not necessary until we made it so), as pre-dawn explosions light an ancient city, and we think about the people who drove out into the Belgian countryside to watch the battle of Waterloo or the senators and their ladies who took their carriages to Bull Run, expecting to see the Union Army put an end to any Confederate attempt at civil war.

Listening to ABC's Ted Koppel, with an invading infantry division, talking about "firing up the satellite truck" to send footage taken minutes before for all of us to see, we are reminded of Matthew Brady, who was heading to Bull Run to photograph the battle when his darkroom wagon was pushed off the road and overturned by hastily retreating Union soldiers.

We are reminded, too, as we watch the protestors create chaos in the streets and hear them roundly condemned for doing so, of a congressman who stood in the House of Representatives in 1848 to make the accusation that "the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the president."

This protester, who lost his seat in Congress for his anti-war views, was Abraham Lincoln.

WAR HAS always been a perilous enterprise. The odds against survival, in fact, were much lower for our fighting forces of the past than they are in this high-tech world. Yet, it becomes clear that there was a time, which seems like eons ago, when entrance into war was treated like a celebration of this nation's optimism.

When the United States went to war against Kaiser Wilhelm in 1917, to fight The Great War, the War to End All Wars, the 60 men of Santa Rosa's Company E were among the first of the California militia to be called to duty.

They marched off to battle, down Fourth Street to the railroad station to catch the 10:07 "down train," the Willits Southbound Express, for the Presidio in San Francisco. The Santa Rosa Band played a march tune and the 352 students from Lincoln School lined the street, waving American flags.

In the Spanish-American War, an earlier group of Company E soldiers had been given another grand send-off. In late June of 1898, they were led from a rousing patriotic rally at the Atheneum by a brass band, along the same path to the depot, escorted by the old soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic, Union veterans of the Civil War.

They were headed, ostensibly, to the Philippines to fight the Spanish. They were too late for battlefield heroics. Teddy Roosevelt led his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba a week after their departure and the Spanish surrendered days later. Company E never advanced beyond the Bay Area, although they did "ship out" (by ferry boat) from Oakland's Camp Barrett to San Francisco's Fort Point before they mustered out and came home to Santa Rosa.

IN WORLD WAR I, the company commander was Capt. Hilliard Comstock, a Santa Rosa attorney who would become a judge and the chairman of the school board in post-war years. His lieutenant, Thorn Gale, also a lawyer, missed the send-off. He had the mumps.

There were four sergeants, Everett Campbell, Donald Geary, Burton Cochrane (who would, at age 50, as Major Cochrane, serve in Africa, France and Italy in WWII) and Frank Churchill.

Petaluma's Company K, another 52 men commanded by 2nd Lt. Joe Haran, joined Company E at the Presidio the following week, the very day, in fact, that the United States officially entered the war. Haran's men also left town with the cheers of their neighbors ringing in their ears, marching through crowds of Petalumans to reach their train.

Four young Petaluma men were so taken with the excitement that they fell in line, boarded the train and enlisted when they reached the Presidio.

Most of these Sonoma County men ended up in France, arriving at the front lines on Nov. 15, 1918, four days after the Armistice took effect. Only one Company E soldier, Frank Denham, was killed in action. Others, such as William Heinrich, a bellhop at the Overton Hotel in civilian life, were so badly gassed that complete recovery was impossible.

Other county residents, in other units, were also hit. The five Hills brothers, who lived near Sebastopol, were all together in a French trench when a shell hit. One was killed, the other four injured.

BECAUSE the men of 1898's Company E (and Petaluma's Company C, who joined in their adventures) were not "regular Army," their towns were responsible for them. Donations from citizens bought their uniforms and their armaments. When they marched off to the train, they carried "comfort bags" made by the ladies of the First Presbyterian Church and sack lunches provided by the Red Cross.

They went to Camp Barrett in Alameda County, which they nicknamed "Camp Grin 'n' Barrett." They were accompanied, according to the newspaper, by "a minstrel troupe, a baseball nine and a mascot ... whose name is Rex, a gay lad," to keep them entertained.

But they ran out of both provisions and war. Although peace was declared, they were not released from service and, for a time, their captain, Charles Haven, paid for their food from his own pocket. Then the newspapers took up the cause and the towns raised enough funds to feed their soldiers.

They were away from June to February, although many came home to visit. Theirs was the kind of campaign that mothers love. No one killed. No one injured. No one so far away that they couldn't come home to vote. You don't find any happier war stories in our archives.

BUT HISTORY shows that wars don't end well. Even the ones with grand and glorious beginnings. President William McKinley and newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who war-mongered to increase circulation, may have had Americans believing that the Spanish-American War was a noble cause. History has shown otherwise.

The Spanish-American War lasted just four months. It marked the emergence of the United States as a world power. It brought independence to Cuba and annexation of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico as U.S. territories.

With the Navy engaged on two oceans, it pointed up the need for passage through the Isthmus of Panama and led to the construction of the canal and the creation of the nation of Panama. Thus, the line of march that took our volunteer soldiers to the train has led us to Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, Imelda Marcos, and the troublesome question of statehood for Puerto Rico.

World War I, which was to make the world safe for democracy forever, ended with a whimper, as the first attempt at world government, the League of Nations, failed and the flaws in the Treaty of Versailles led directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II.

We don't even know what to call this new war yet. According to a CNN crawler, our government would like it to be known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. I hope that's true. I hope that's all.

America's Arrogance Could Be Its Undoing


March 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Singapore Press Holdings Limited. All rights reserved.

HOW easy will it be for the United States to win peace after the war? Not just in devastated Iraq but also in the comity of nations where, as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told the United Nations Security Council, the challenge is the choice between two visions of the world.

One is a community of equal partners whose only touchstone is the battered UN. We glimpsed the other when the Soviet collapse inspired then-US president George Bush senior's New World Order. For former president Richard Nixon, the time had come to reset America's geopolitical compass. We have a historic opportunity to change the world, he exulted. Vice-President Dick Cheney, then defence secretary, had already told a Senate committee that the US no longer had any global challenger, except in nuclear weapons. No country is our match in conventional military technology or the ability to apply it, he boasted. There are no significant alliances hostile to our interests.

America's ideology of how the world should be organised, to quote Singapore's ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh, will be rejected if the war drags on and the Iraqis mount a Vietnam-style resistance. Most governments are also wary of a precedent that might encourage preemptive strikes by others. Few tears may be shed for President Saddam Hussein but the old Chinese saying about killing the chicken to scare the monkey explains speculation about the long-term message of eliminating him.

'Shock and awe' obscures these questions now. No other nation can spend US$400 billion (S$706 billion) on defence.

Subtle skills match military and financial might. Professor Noam Chomsky, guru of the American left, tells us that propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state. If so, President George W. Bush is a dab hand at it. The ultimate in chutzpah, the Yiddish word for effrontery, used to be the youth who murdered his parents and then begged the court to pity his orphaned state. Now, it is a leader who shrinks from certain defeat at the world's forum, then proclaims that his only mission is to enforce the just demands of the world.

Author and poet Rudyard Kipling spoke of the awesome responsibility that great power carries. His poem Recessional urged humility on imperial Britain with grim reminders of how quickly temporal glory vanishes. In The White Man's Burden, Kipling bluntly told the US, which had just acquired the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain, that doing good is a thankless task.

Both lessons are again apposite, reiterating the late Senator William Fulbright's warning. In 1966, he wrote about America being at the historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it. Other great nations, reaching this crucial juncture, had aspired to too much and, by an over-extension of effort, had declined and fallen.

Gradually, but unmistakably, America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened and, in some cases, destroyed great nations in the past. In so doing, it is not living up to its capacity and promise as a civilised example for the world; the measure of its falling short is the measure of the patriot's duty of dissent.

America need not fall short of its lofty ideals. The coalition of the willing is a fine phrase that promises consensual leadership. It implies, among other things, respect for weaker nations; loyalty to the UN; and transparent actions. This newspaper's report that a company with which Mr Cheney was associated has been granted a contract in Iraq and is bidding for another reminds us that the first mining concession granted by Laurent Kabila after overthrowing Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 was to little-known American Mineral Fields. It worked out of Hope, Arkansas, a tiny town that was Mr Bill Clinton's home. Not just Caesar's wife but Caesar and his lieutenants must be above suspicion if this second coming of the New World Order is to survive the dust and din of battle.

The writer is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's School of Communication and Information. He contributed this comment to the Straits Times.

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