- Evan Vucci/ AP Photos
Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day, commemorates the end of World War I in 1918. Germany lost, a resolution it was hard for Germans to get their minds around, as the guns that fell silent were all on foreign soil. A war that began as a snappy invasion of Belgium and France expected to settle matters in a few weeks turned into an endless slog Germany was unprepared for, and then into even worse.
Puzzled by what went wrong, a lot of Germans decided the nation must have been stabbed in the back. Hitler was one of those Germans.
I just finished an op-ed in the New York Times by the retired lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, a senior commander in Afghanistan and Iraq and author of the new book Why We Lost. He calls both those campaigns “failed wars,” and acknowledges how tempting it is for “military commanders like me” to convince themselves they did their part “and a few more diplomats or civilian leaders should have done theirs.” Similar “myths” flourished once the Vietnam war was over, and Bolger supposes soldiers who fought for the Confederacy under Robert E. Lee held the same ideas.
Southerners, at least, knew they’d been whipped. All they had to do was go outside and study the rubble. And Germans got the picture from the revolution that broke out a month before the war ended, and then from the insulting terms the victors set. Americans, on the other hand, might never have known we were bailing out of Saigon, and Baghdad, and Kabul if they hadn’t read something about it in the papers. Defeat didn’t even muss the hair of the stock market.
The USA is a nation on a serious losing streak—Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq—in wars that go on forever. It’s what happens, Bolger says, when an army designed for one-punch knockouts comes up against dogged insurgents we don’t understand and our local “allies” are corrupt and incompetent. If we send in the army to clear out ISIS it’ll probably happen again, he thinks: “If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I think we’re there.”
But our losing streak doesn’t seem to bother many Americans. Maybe next time . . . “As veterans,” Bolger writes, “we tell ourselves it was all worth it. . . . In the military, we love our legends.” Unscarred civilians love their veterans and they love their legends too. If the end of war finds the home front sadder but wiser, that’s a funk civilians are easily talked out of, especially when the home front is completely lacking in direct evidence of war’s toll. It took the Germans no time at all to shake off their doldrums and climb back in the saddle.