When I was a student in France in the early 1960s, I spent time visiting those areas that had been the battleground for World War I. It was an educational and emotional experience.
Like most Americans, I knew relatively little about World War I other than that the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, 100 years ago last week and nearly three years after it began. The U.S. entry helped tilt the balance in favor of our British and French allies and the war ended in November 1918, though the ramifications would long endure.
Visiting the battlefields and the American military cemeteries in northern and eastern France gave me some sense of the scope and human cost of the horrendous conflict. (There are, of course, many U.S military cemeteries from World War II as well.) At the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, more than 14,000 Americans are buried. In the strikingly beautiful but solemn St. Mihiel American Cemetery, more than 4,000 are buried, mostly from the Battle of St. Mihiel, which staved off threats to Paris.
Altogether there are 26 U.S. military cemeteries on foreign soil under authority of the American Battle Monuments Commission. A number of museums and monuments commemorate U.S. "wars," but there has been no monument specifically commemorating World War I in the nation's capital. However, Joseph Weishaar, a young University of Arkansas architecture graduate, submitted the design chosen for the first national memorial.
Most Americans today would not recognized the name "Verdun" -- the 1916 battle of attrition there between France and Germany with trench warfare lasted 10 months and resulted in 700,000 casualties. Still today, the countryside around Verdun is scarred with the remnants of battle.
The war the United States entered 100 years ago was said by some at the time to be the "war to end war." And President Woodrow Wilson, who led the nation into that war, even in the face of strong opposition in this country, called it a war to make the world safe for democracy.
It was a declared war, formally approved by Congress at the request of the president.
Since then, only World War II has been a "declared" war, even though there is a long list of U.S. military conflicts and interventions during that time.
World War I certainly did not prove to be "the war to end war" And the issues that permeated consideration of the U.S. role have continued through the 100 years since war was declared on Germany in 1917.
Now, yet again, the U.S. has undertaken military action, this time with the cruise missile strikes against Syria, in addition to the ongoing roles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the battle against ISIS.
Once more we are confronted with the question of U.S. engagement with the rest of the world, often described as isolationism vs. interventionism, although that can be an over-simplification. How many time have we heard it said that the U.S. can't take on the role of the world's policemen, something we heard from candidate Trump during his campaign?
And once again we may face the question of having gone in, how do we get out? In the case of Syria we are dealing with a complex civil war as well as international entanglements. And what is our overall strategy in that volatile region?
Many in Congress have expressed support for President Trump's about-face action, some having been moved by those same haunting images of helpless victims of chemical weapons unleashed by the ruling Assad regime. Such images and the resultant compulsion to "do something" constitute what we call the CNN effect, when vivid television coverage drives policy.
A few years ago, Trump said President Obama "must get congressional approval before attacking Syria." And many in Congress, among them Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, have indicated that further action against Syria should need congressional approval.
Recent practice has allowed a commander-in-chief the ability to act quickly, as the War Powers Resolution of 1973 provides, and such action usually has broad public backing initially. However, there's a tendency for support for sustained intervention to wane.
Following the missile strike last week, I heard a newscaster say, "The U.S. has declared war on Syria."
No. Only Congress can legally and formally declare war, and, as noted, that has not happened since World War II, despite our involvement in numerous military deployments and interventions. Significant military action should have congressional authorization.
One hundred years after the declaration of war in World War I, we know very well that it was not the war to end war. As commentator Walter Lippmann said in 1967, the delusion is that whatever war we are fighting is the war to end war.
We continue to struggle with how and when to use military power and what our true national security interests are. President Trump's action puts those issues before us once more.
Commentary on 04/12/2017
Print Headline: No War to End War?