Tuesday, August 16, 2005

They Are Expendable

John Ford's 1945 movie, "They Were Expendable", deals with a unit of PT boats in the Phillipines during the opening days of WWII. All the boats, and many of the men, are lost as the movie goes on. The movie tends to overrate the effectiveness of the PTs to some degree, but what I've always found intriguing about it is the undertone of doom for the Americans. You know that they're going to lose in the Phillipines, that those who are captured are probably going to suffer terribly, but as an admiral tells the commander of the PT squadron, "This is what we train for".

I suppose we've forgotten to some degree what it is like to be the underdogs. Since the end of WWII, the United States has been a superpower, able to extend its arm into all sorts of world troublespots, sometimes for good, sometimes apparently meddling where we weren't wanted or needed by the locals. Yet it was in WWII, fighting countries that were in many ways superior to us in men and material at first, that the United States truly became united. I think that the title of Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation" is a bit overblown, not because I disagree that those men and women overcame terrible obstacles or made terrible sacrifices to preserve our freedoms, but because it almost sounds as if OUR generations since then are somehow lesser in character or purpose. Perhaps it is because we've lost our focus and our idealism, becoming cynical along the way as we've seen greed and selfishness take over.

That's what should bother us about our current situation. We have many thousands of young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting under terrible circumstances with many being killed or horribly maimed. Many of our troops are from the Guard, not full-timers paid and trained to take on such massive responsibilities like the Regulars, yet they are frequently asked to pay the ultimate sacrifice just as often. Why are they fighting? Most of us realize by now that the 9/11 terrorists had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein or anyone in Iraq, that the tales from the Administration of "weapons of mass destruction" were so much bunk and that the current party line from the Big Elephant types, that our troops are fighting "over there" to keep from fighting them "over here" is equally so much tripe. Yet every week new units are called up and sent over to fill in the gaps left by those killed by roadside bombs and suicidal fanatics who think that they are defending Islam from a modern-day Crusade.

It doesn't help any that our President and current majority leadership, aided and abetted by so-called "commentators" like Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and most of the rest of the Fox News Network, seem to be calling for a Christian Crusade in the Middle East. Coulter has essentially said as much, indicating that we Americans should just go into most of the Arab countries, kill the fanatics and convert the remainder to Christianity (of course, most of these "chicken hawks" aren't signing up in droves to enter the military and help out; no, they see their job as being on the "home front", converting the former liberal hordes to the neo-conservative banner of Christianity and Right-wing views). Of course, we're really in a chicken and egg dilemma; were the terrorists there to begin with or did we create them by invading? From a purely historic view, I think we've helped fuel the terrorist movement by our policies since the 1960s and our apparent inability to realize that the longer we're tied to the Middle East by our addiction to oil, the harder it'll be to leave them in the dust of history.

The movie comes to a point where John Wayne's boat is strafed by a couple of Japanese fighters and a number of the colorful "old" Navy guys on his PT are killed. Wayne's character, a lieutenant named "Rusty", just about loses hope, knowing that the Phillipines are essentially lost along with his command. His girl, a nurse on Bataan, is probably gone forever as well. He gets a little bit of hope when he and a few remainders of the squadron are flown out on the last C-47 to leave before the Japanese seal things off. Others are left behind for almost certain participation in the Bataan Death March. They were expendable, but at least it was for the best of causes; are our modern troops being expended in the same way and really for the same cause? To question our purpose in being in Iraq is to often be considered a traitor nowadays or to be accused of "not supporting our troops", but to question our motivations in being there is the highest tribute we as citizens can give them because it is exactly that purpose for which most of them think that they are fighting.

I just wish they weren't considered to be so expendable in a cause that our leadership can barely articulate.

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