Reaching Back for Glory

February 17, 2002

by John K. Bates

Of all the interesting and not-so-interesting aspects of the so-called “war on terrorism,” one is particularly fascinating. It seems that in what are times of unique stress, some Americans are reaching back to a time and place when society truly was threatened and when heroes stood up and conquered major challenges. Historians say it was America’s finest hour: a time of great danger, immense sacrifice, and of ultimate success. Many Americans today are reaching back to those days past for inspiration and reassurance.

Those days were, of course, the era of World War II and the Great Depression. With the exception of the Civil War, this was the most dangerous time in American history. Unemployment hit 25% and millions lived in conditions barely fathomable today. There was massive drought; many of the weather records set in the Plains in the 30s still stand today. And of course it was time of conflict. Japan was the initial threat, but German stood very close to Eurasian domination. Had Hitler managed to conquer England, it is likely Nazi Germany would still be alive today and would still control the vast majority of Europe. The U.S. may have been forced to sue for peace, which would have resulted in a vastly different world. Instead, a generation of Americans - with a huge assist from the British - stood up and sacrificed themselves and did what it took to get the job done.

Today we have a revival of sorts. It started with books such as Citizen Soldiers and The Greatest Generation and continued with movies such as Saving Private Ryan. September 11 caused such reflection to grow much stronger. One of the most pointed symbols of that day - the photo of the firefighters raising the flag over the World Trade Center rubble - became a link of sorts to World War II as it in some respects resembled the Marine flag-raising at Iwo Jima. And President Bush’s recent “axis of evil” remark is at least in part a desire to rekindle the spirit that carried the nation in that war, the spirit that there is evil in the world and it is up to the forces of good to defeat that evil. The nation must rally to defeat those forces that, according to the president, pose as grave a threat to this nation as did Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II.

There are significant problems, however, with comparing our times to those of 60 years ago. Consider the famous flag-raising picture. It is ludicrous and nothing more than typical Boomer narcissism to paste this image next to the picture of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. The two events do not even remotely compare. The Marine flag was raised after days of intense fighting near the end of almost four years of bloody war. It was a flag of triumph over both short term and long term obstacles. The WTC flag, by contrast, was a flag of defiance and even of resolve. But it was not a flag of victory. Rather than Iwo Jima, an appropriate photographic partner to this photo would have been the USS Arizona going down in flames at Pearl Harbor. If we are truly at the beginning of a conflict, that is where we stood on September 11 - at the same place Americans stood on December 7, 1941. For our society to somehow ascribe the years-long sacrifice and struggle and ultimate victory of Iwo Jima to a single attack on a single day at a single location shows that our society knows absolutely nothing about sacrifice and desires nothing but short term self-recognition. Our “marines” have already raised their flag of triumph; no further sacrifice is necessary.

There is a similar problem with Bush’s “axis of evil” remarks. That is not to say there is not some truth to what he said; there are certainly individuals on this earth who desire and plan the destruction of the United States. But with the exception of Iraq, none of these individuals command a state and a military apparatus. The threat today comes largely from rogue individuals - some protected by states, some not - and the odd tin-pot dictatorship. To claim an “axis of evil” is to assign World War II levels of gravity to both the threat to our country and to the level of evil our country faces. Which is ridiculous; Saddaam Hussein is an evil man, but he is nowhere close to Adolf Hitler in either evil or power. Kim Jong Il is a despotic crackpot, but he is no Tojo. Usama bin Laden is the most successful terrorist in history, but he commands nothing close to the power of even Mussolini’s armies. Combined, Bush’s “axis of evil” would not last a week in normal combat against even Hitler’s 3rd line Panzers. To assign such gravity to such a motley group is simply not accurate. Nor is it necessary.

So why did Bush go out of his way to use a phrase that clearly was meant to assign significance? It appears to be a practical contrivance. Agree with Bush or not that the nation is at war (and this columnist emphatically disagrees with the notion), Bush has a responsibility to engage the nation to the task at hand. Americans - especially our narcissistic Boomers - have a famously short-term memory. It has been five months since the September attacks, and there have been no further attacks. We must, if we are to respond in the way Bush thinks we ought, keep the theme of war in our minds. What better way to do this than to invoke the spirit of the one war we all know about, have read about, and consider to be the high water mark of American resolve? In this sense, Bush is right to “play the World War II card” as a way to continue enthusiasm for this effort.

But Bush’s method also risks desensitizing Americans to genuine threats. By setting the bar of our conflict so high, we have nowhere else to go. If we are at war against an “axis of evil” now, what will we be fighting when we are actually engaged in a real war? If the tin-pot dictatorships of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are this axis of evil, what will we call China if we go to war with them over Taiwan? For that matter, what should China be called today? It is the most brutally repressive regime on the planet; does it not qualify as evil? Is it to be considered not evil? Or is it even worse, some sort of “super evil” that we don’t have a term for just yet? And when we do have to categorize the next threat, how will we do so? Or will Americans - tired of the World War II comparisons - shrug their shoulders and simply ignore the new threat? Like the boy who cried wolf, we will have heard it too many times; the analogy will have completely lost its affect.

Bush is not wrong for declaring evil in our midst. He - like Reagan in the 1980s - is correct to call something what it truly is. Bush’s mistake is that by playing the World War II card, he has played the best card in his hand. It says a lot about narcissistic Boomer America that the only way we can be motivated is to borrow the symbols and emblems of the past. But our leaders must know better and must save the ultimate motivation for something that requires much more sacrifice. Our “war on terrorism” comes not close at all to the threat of World War II. Winning it will require nothing close to the sacrifice of the selfless Americans of that generation. Bush defeats his purpose and fuels our self-important society by comparing this small battle to that enormous conflict. He may have felt like he had no choice. But he should have known better.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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