Seventy-one years ago this month, Japan launched an aerial assault on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, killing more than 2,400 and bringing America into World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”
Do today’s schoolchildren still learn his words? More important, are they aware he said the bombing of Pearl Harbor is the most important date in 20th century American military history?
Unfortunately, America suffers from a serious case of military illiteracy. Many Americans regard the military with ambivalence. We fluctuate between “Support our Troops,” banners being flown over NFL games or “Bring the Troops Home” protests where demonstrators want to downsize the military and direct the savings toward social problems. Both attitudes resonate but neither provide what we as a citizenry must demand — accountability.
As columnist William Pfaff recently noted in the Tribune, since 1945 America has expended significant blood and treasure for scant national advantage. Moreover, our military generals from Douglas MacArthur in Korea, to William Westmoreland in Vietnam, and now David Petraeus and John Allen in Afghanistan, despite their accomplishments, have ill served the American cause with questionable behavior.
But how can we demand accountability from military leaders without a basic understanding of who they are, where they fight and their mission?
American military illiteracy extends to three broad categories, each illustrated by a basic question.
Where is Camp Bastion and what happened there?
Many of America’s best journalists made their bones covering war. In addition, newspapers once published battle maps of infantry and naval engagements, often on the front page. Today, expense and lack of interest have basically eliminated embedded reporting. Now the only intricate battle strategies featured in newspapers are those of NFL teams.
Answer: Camp Bastion is a large Anglo-American military base in an isolated area of Afghanistan. On Sept. 14, a handful of Taliban insurgents, disguised in U.S. fatigues, infiltrated the supposedly secure outpost, killed two Marines, and destroyed six Harrier jets at a cost of more than $100 million. A military correspondent called it arguably the worst day in Marine Corps aviation history since the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
What war produced the most American casualties?
Put simply, most of our universities and secondary schools no longer teach any military history. As an example, during three decades of collective education at a good high school and respected universities, my children were never taught the details of a single military battle. Marathon, Hastings, Constantinople, Yorktown, Gettysburg, the Somme, Normandy, Stalingrad — all glossed over. The military genius of Julius Caesar, Napoleon, George Washington — never mentioned. Even Tenochtitlan and Wounded Knee were barely included in the study of Mesoamerican and Native American history. All these battles, road maps of how today’s world came to be, and where thousands died, are virtually ignored in our classrooms.
Answer: More than 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War (1861-1865).
Who was Basil Plumley?
The published obituaries of Americans veterans generally include their military service only in passing. Unless they happened to be medal winners, their war exploits are rarely mentioned. Contrast that with Great Britain, with far fewer active veterans since World War II. Leading newspapers like the Times of London and The Telegraph feature the obituaries of veterans. The Telegraph actually publishes a book devoted to military obituaries.
Answer: Command Sgt. Major Basil Plumley was a highly decorated veteran, one of the few American soldiers who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He saw action at Salerno and Normandy during World War II, made a combat jump in Korea and was one of the heroes of Ia Drang, the first major battle of the Vietnam War in 1965. The story of his service was told in the book “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young” and a subsequent movie. He died in October at age 92.)
At a time when our entire educational system is creaking, some may cavil at teaching military history. Yet there is folly in ignoring the military’s essential value to our society. Naysayers should heed the warning of the great American science fiction writer and social commentator Robert Heinlein: “Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that violence never solves anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor; and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedom.”
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