Wilfred Owen, a poet and soldier in World War I, wrote, "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori."
It means, of course, "It is sweet and right to die for your country." Not always a lie, I think. Most Americans were willing to die for their country in World War II. In Vietnam, many were not; President Johnson, in 1964, promised, "We seek no wider war."
But the war grew and grew, went on and on. 58,000 Americans died in that war and many more thought the dying was not sweet and right. I remember the demonstrations. Now comes Afghanistan. How do we feel about young Americans dying there?
President Obama announced he is sending more troops, but added that he later plans to withdraw some. "...the nation that I am most interested in building is our own." I am no expert; I was there only once briefly, years ago. But we have learned some things. Nation-building is very hard, as witness our efforts in Iraq. Nation-building in Vietnam has had some success, but of course that's a war we lost.
Afghanistan is primitive, poor and full of problems. Hamid Karzai, the president, is widely reported to be a crook. So is the rest of his government. We've been there eight years already. How much of a nation have we built? The Associated Press today quotes the U.S. commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, as saying we should offer the militants a way to quit "with dignity." The same story quotes a villager, "What did you do for the last eight years against your enemies? You have killed Afghans and your enemies have killed Afghans."
I'm sure that President Obama, a wise man, thinks it's possible. I suppose Lyndon Johnson thought it was possible. But as Alessandra Stanley notes in today's New York Times, "All president seek to improve on history. But history has a way of getting the better of even the best intentions."
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