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We Shall Study War Once More

As we prepare to honor fallen servicemen and servicewomen, let’s reflect on why they fight.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war any more.”

It’s a dream that transcends time and culture. To the Israelites who inscribed the verse, peace was the promise the Messiah would bring in the last days. To Martin Luther King Jr. thousands of years later, the verse was a protest against a war he viewed as unjust.

“And I don't know about you, I ain't gonna study war no more,” he declared at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1967.

But war did not disappear with the proclamation of Isaiah. It did not disappear with Vietnam—despite a generation of war-weary leaders who sought to never repeat that American experience.

War remains with us.

Strangely, though, Americans remain largely ignorant of war. It’s not just the oft-cited statistic that only 1 percent of the population has borne the burden of the nation’s current wars. It’s that so much of the population still conceives of warfare as an activity in which great forces of good and evil clash in open battle, seeking decisive victory.

But decisive victory is elusive—as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved. It’s elusive now. It was elusive in Vietnam. It was even elusive in World War II and the Civil War, conflicts that to many Americans are the very epitome of Total War.

“War no longer exists,” British Gen. Rupert Smith wrote. “Confrontation, conflict and combat exist all around the world. … (But) war as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists.”

This is not an arcane point reserved for generals, admirals and military history professors. It shapes the way we, as citizens, participate in our democracy and debate foreign policy. It shapes the way our politicians act on our behalf.

No one has been as guilty of this as me.

When I arrived in Iraq in 2008, I was convinced that if any civilian could understand war I was the one. I’m an Army brat who dreamed of being an infantryman. I devoured military history and spent two years in ROTC. My heart broke when the Army told me my eyes weren’t good enough to join, but I eventually finagled a job covering Iraq and Afghanistan for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Yet I found myself sorely unprepared—confused even. I expected violence. I expected fear. I expected tragedy. But I didn’t expect an internal logic so unmoored from political debates back home.

In the seven days leading up to Memorial Day, I invite you to reflect with me on the lessons I’ve learned. Feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences—and by all means, tell me where you think I go wrong.

But as we honor warriors, let us go beyond words and offer them the greatest tribute.

Let us study war once more.

***

Be sure to check out the entire series:

  • May 22: We Shall Study War Once More
  • May 23:
  • May 24:
  • May 25:
  • May 26:
  • May 27:
  • May 28:

 

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Carol Bungert May 22, 2012 at 11:46 AM
Excellent article
Brad Koehn May 22, 2012 at 01:30 PM
Very nice work. I look forward to reading the remaining articles. Thanks for sharing and for your service.
Norman Teigen May 22, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Thanks, James. I am a Vietnam-Nam veteran who returned home in 1971. I appreciate what you are doing here.

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