The purpose of Memorial Day is to take a collective, national pause to consider and celebrate those brave dead who gave their “last full measure of devotion…so that this nation [might] not perish from the earth.”

In that vein, Victor Davis Hanson’s Memorial Day analytical tribute, “Looking Back to Iraq: A War to be Proud of,” is a must read.

What went right?

Hanson asserts:
1. Saddam is gone and that is good. A malevolent actor is no longer atop one of the most potentially powerful states in the world, roiling an already turbulent and troublesome region, held in check only through a leaky sanctions regime, which was dependent upon European resolve, Russian morality and Chinese altruism.

2. US action gave Iraq an honest opportunity for democracy.

3. The fight with Islamism in Iraq has shed moral clarity on the vital war with Islamic extremism.

Manifest reasons why we didn’t go to war (Hanson enumerates):
1. Cheap gasoline.
2. Halliburton.
3. Imperialism (some of the President’s strongest critics call for more troops—not less, and it is clear that no one in the USA wants us to stay in Iraq one minute more than necessary).

Hanson touches on the debate over casus belli. He does well to remind us that the pre-war case for action was not mono-causal—but laced with multiple motives. One of my colleagues wrote critically, before the fighting commenced, that President Bush seemed unable to articulate one clear reason for war; he bemoaned the Bush approach of multiple rationales, seeing such variety as a signal that the case was not well made.

However, I believed then and now that criticism of that nature was misplaced. I have criticized the President for the exact opposite mistake: President Bush relied too heavily on WMD as a casus belli. There were myriad imperatives why Saddam’s removal was crucial: the shaky sanctions regime; the fact that we were flying combat missions (and taking hostile fire) over Iraq every day; our presence in Saudi Arabia, a result of the ongoing “state of war” with Iraq, was highly offensive to the Muslim world; and, most importantly, the Middle East is a bad neighborhood with a lot of bad guys and the presence of Saddam exacerbated that precarious balance between threatening and less-threatening entities. Every day Saddam was in power made the United States and the world less safe. Transforming Iraq would be a watershed moment in remaking the Middle East.

Notwithstanding, President Bush, Tony Blair and Colin Powell pinned the case for war on WMD. Why did they do it? It was a sure thing. In the words of George Tenant, it was a “slam dunk.” We know now that the slam dunk was the sure thing that wasn’t.

Almost immediately, even before the full realization that there would be no smoking WMD, the Bush administration began to emphasize the other reasons for toppling Saddam and building a democratic government in Iraq friendly to the United States, which continues to bring criticism from various quarters.

Fluid rationales for wars are not unprecedented in American history. Oftentimes Presidents have had trouble articulating our real reasons for making war. James K. Polk’s War Message to Congress asking for a declaration of hostilities against Mexico is perhaps the most infamous. President Polk charged the Mexicans with rudeness to an American diplomat, primarily, and, as an after thought, an unprovoked attack on American forces (after Polk had moved General Zachary Taylor and company into a position finally so provocative that it engendered an attack).

What Polk could not bring himself to say was this: the United States needed the Great Southwest for our experiment in liberty. Polk was clearly under the spell of “Manifest Destiny” (although you will not find that term in the Message or any of his public utterances; the familiar terms comes from a contemporary Democratic newspaper editor).

Sometimes the unvarnished truth is impossible to articulate. Polk knew what Washington, Jefferson and Jackson had known from the very beginning of the American Republic: to reach our full potential as an emerging nation dedicated to a system of self government, we needed a transcontinental “empire for liberty” fueled by a robust economy and westward-moving culture.

Even now the “manifest” truth of that need is hard to articulate, defend and rationalize, but in our hearts we all seem to understand that the Southwest was necessary to our survival and success. Would any of us give it back? We are limited by language and idealism. Our need for pure motives is one of the conundrums of politics in the United States, wherein vital national interests must be tempered with just war doctrine and an acutely American sense of fair play.

The Second World War was also clouded in ambiguity in the beginning. FDR understood fully during the 1930s that the success of the Nazis and Japanese militarists posed a lethal threat to Western institutions. He struggled mightily, and mostly in vain, to turn the attention of the American people to the danger in Europe. A frustrated President Roosevelt, in 1937, rued: “it is hard to lead, when you look around to find that no one is following you.” His January 1941 State of the Union Address, known to us as the “Four Freedoms Speech,” exaggerated the threat of a German invasion of the United States and made the case for an American connection to the war in Europe--but the domestic debate raged on.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended that debate and brought us into the war with vigor and righteous indignation. Germany followed with a declaration of war on us, and we fought World War Two as an avenging victim of a “dastardly” sneak attack. It was not until the war was almost over that the nation as a whole come to understand and articulate that the war was freighted with much more serious issues: remaking the world into a more peaceful community of nations in which self determination and human rights were the supreme values.

Of course, the Civil War stands as the ultimate example of the American people coming to grips with the meaning of the struggle as the battle waged. In his Second Inaugural, after four years of intense fighting, Abraham Lincoln observed that, from the beginning, “[a]ll knew that [slavery] was somehow the cause of the war.” But most Americans in the North could not articulate that overwhelming rationale for many years.

Over the course of the war, however, Americans embraced the cause of emancipation as they came to abhor the inhumanity and contradiction of slavery, and the Civil War became synonymous with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.

Why Iraq?
The war in Iraq is about the future. Much is at stake. In March of 2003, I wrote an 800-word essay in favor of the impending action in Iraq (in which, for the record, I did not mention WMD). The following is an excerpt from that op-ed piece that appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald. I stand by these thoughts:

“Why should we be there? Why should we expend the resources and brave the risks inherent in expelling Saddam Hussein? After the events of Sept. 11, most of us agree that stability in the Middle East is vital to our national security. Bold action, if accomplished swiftly and with sensitivity, will bring positive change.

Ousting one of the worst tyrants of our time and installing a more humane regime in its place will raise the quality of life for everyone in the region and will enhance American prestige in the Arab world.

What can we do with that prestige? We can resuscitate the peace process in the Middle East. We can encourage the spread of self-government and human rights in the region. We can assist the Iraqi people in building a prosperous and more democratic state, which will establish a model for modernization in the Middle East. All of those things add to our security.

Why us and why now? Only the United States has the will and capacity to confront this outlaw. We have a fleeting opportunity to do great good. Our window for action is small and once missed may never be open again.

[A] bold campaign concentrated on a specific malefactor…may well strike a blow for justice that will reverberate well beyond the borders of Iraq.”

We certainly wished for an easier war with less resistance, fewer deaths and fewer mistakes. Nevertheless, at this point in time, Memorial Day 2006, ultimate victory is within our grasp--but by no means is it secure. However, the stakes are still the same. Victory is our best chance for sustained peace. Defeat equals disaster.

Lincoln's Memorial Day Message:
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."