Of Heroes and Chicken Hawks
The First Time an American President Asked Men to Die in a Foreign War
It was an obscure but deadly firefight in a far-off land, a hundred years ago. Ever since the burden has been: is it worth it? Too often, it wasn’t.
The fallen will always be there, never far from where they fell. All across northern France there are the graves of men, including many thousands of Americans, who died in a foreign land in the course of two world wars.
Sometimes there are vast, carefully manicured cemeteries like the one at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, with more than 9,000 graves of Americans who died during and after the D-Day landings in 1944.
More often, if you drive through the rolling, verdant farmlands between the English Channel and the Belgian border, there are clusters of headstones on small plots on the fringe of a village or a hamlet, marking the location of a quick and bloody skirmish, a sudden, intense firefight. The graves are immaculately tended, the flowers always fresh.
In the hamlet of Cantigny, too small to appear on most maps, there is a monument inscribed: “Erected by the United States of America to commemorate the first attack by an American Division in the World War.”
This is where it all began, a century ago, the first use of American military power abroad, fighting with allies in the cause of freedom.
Early on May 28, 1918, units of the U.S. Army’s First Division were committed to retake Cantigny from the Germans who occupied it.
The commanders of the French and British armies were unsure how well the Americans would fight. In terms of battle experience they had none. They lacked essential equipment. Their allies had to back them up with the two newest weapons of war, airplanes and tanks, which they lacked.
Before the Americans could attack, the ground between them and the German positions had to be blasted by a rolling artillery barrage. The American infantry would emerge from their trenches and advance in pace with the shells raining down ahead of them. Hopefully their supporting artillery would eliminate the German artillery before it found them.
This was very late in the war. The British and French had been locked into a largely static and continually murderous stalemate with the German armies, producing millions of casualties on both sides. In all of military history there had never been such a seemingly senseless demonstration of mutual destruction to no advantage of either side.
For at least two years before it entered the war in 1917 America had been sharply divided about whether, against all the country’s isolationist instincts, it should – or even could – become engaged in this conflict. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected with a margin of only 23 electoral votes – decisively helped by left-wing factions who believed he would keep the country out of the war.
But on the evening of April 2, 1917, Wilson went before a joint session of Congress and told them “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, but the right is more precious than peace” and America would go to war “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government, for the rights and liberties of small nations…and to make the world itself at last free.”
Wilson was therefore the first occupant of the White House to accept the responsibility of sending large numbers of the nation’s youngest and brightest to fight in a foreign field. But, just as America’s armed forces were ill-equipped for this new form of total war, they were also far short of the men required to wage such a war.
In May, to feed the war machine, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, creating the draft that covered all men from 18 to 45 years old – in effect, a national lottery that could have capricious consequences in deciding who would live and who would die, and a way of managing the call to arms that would have consequences all the way to today’s White House.
In Caligny on that May day in 1918 the 3,500 American troops acquitted themselves well. The hamlet – by then little more than pulverized stone and timber – was taken in 30 minutes. Among the young officers leading the attack were Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and the future World War II army chief of staff and statesman, George C. Marshall.
In support the French had used 368 heavy artillery pieces, mortars, flamethrowers and, crucially, tanks used to wipe out the German machine gun positions. Now the crucial test was could the Americans withstand the inevitable German counter-attack?
On the first day they repulsed three counter-attacks, and more over the following days until the position was secured. Their losses, though, were heavy: 1,603 casualties including 199 killed. Of the enemy, 1,400 were killed or wounded, and 250 were taken prisoner. The Allied front line was advanced by a mile.
In the bigger picture of the war it was an insignificant engagement. Symbolically it was hugely portentous. America was now committed to become an international war power.
But between the first and second world wars the U.S. armed forces were neither equipped nor manned to fight a war without conscription. It was a given that if other wars came the draft would have to resume. In World War II and the Korean War enforced recruitment by draft was never seriously questioned, but all that changed with the Vietnam War—as a result of a widespread and articulate anti-war movement the questioned the whole validity of the policies behind it.
The single most erudite and eloquent attack on the war was made by a young and decorated Vietnam vet, and future senator, John Kerry, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971—four years before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
The lines most often quoted from Kerry’s testimony, because of their simple power, are “…how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
But a little later he said, with a more direct accusation: “We are also here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership? We are here to ask where are McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatric, and so many others…these are commanders who have deserted their troops, and there is no more serious crime in the law of war.”
They were the founding members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ foreign and defense policy brain bank. To justify war they had peddled a classic Cold War anti-communist dogma, the domino theory: that unless the communists in Vietnam were stopped the whole of south-east Asia would follow them to red perdition.
Vietnam, of course, eventually fell to the communists, but the other dominoes never followed.
With the launching of the Iraq war by George W. Bush the same questions that Kerry raised were urgently asked again, and the same accusations made, of its neocon architects, from vice-president Dick Cheney to the “brains” behind the policy like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who purveyed two gigantic falsehoods – the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, and the certainty of a quick and relatively bloodless victory.
They, too, have long since gone silent, having left a terrible legacy in blood and the manifold wounds of body and mind.
And now Kerry’s cri de coeur on behalf of the victims of disastrous war doctrines leads us afresh directly to the man whose bellicosity is shaping Trump’s world view, national security advisor John Bolton.
As Barack Obama’s secretary of state Kerry was the main architect and driver of the international team that negotiated the deal with Iran to stop its development of nuclear weapons, a deal that Bolton has always hated and is now in a position to destroy.
Like all the war drummers before him, Bolton displays an astonishing historical and cultural illiteracy. In his case it is the reckless “see you in Tehran” war cry that seems to imply that Iran as a nation can be “taken out” like an annoying gang that is disrupting a neighborhood.
Bolton wants regime change in Tehran. But Iran, unlike Iraq and Syria, is not an arbitrarily bordered gimcrack invention of western powers following World War I to oblige their own strategic interests. It is a combustible mixture of a theocracy, a highly educated secular democracy and a deeply corrupt police state, all framed within a history going back thousands of years that provides an immutable national identity and pride.
A military attack on Iran would make the Iraq war seem like a minor sideshow and the consequences would spread far wider than the Middle East.
It has been said of Bolton that Vietnam was the only war he didn’t like – if it meant that he served in it. Bolton served four years in the National Guard and then another two years in the Army Reserve, thereby avoiding the draft.
In his Yale 25th reunion book he explained: “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam lost.”
And there you have it: Bolton is openly claiming the privilege of choosing which war he was ready to fight in, while actually fighting in none. Most people would think that that is enough to earn him his chicken hawk wings, along with Dick Cheney, who gamed the draft system to get no fewer than five deferments and avoided service.
Meanwhile our present commander-in-chief, although going to a military academy, was exempted medically from the draft on the basis of a supposed bone spur.
In office Trump has shown no comprehension of the moral burden of committing men to battle. In a call meant to console the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who died in an ambush in Niger, he said that “at least he knew what he had signed up for.”
What Sargent Johnson had actually signed up for was an operation that the Pentagon later admitted was incompetently planned and led.
But, of course, Trump’s most unconscionable insult to those who have been sent to the killing fields was his dismissal of Senator John McCain as a war hero “because he was captured.” As if that were not enough, the White House failed to apologize when Kelly Sadler, a special assistant in the communications department, said McCain’s opposition to the nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director “didn’t matter because he’s dying anyway.”
On this Memorial Day it is John McCain who stands as the shining exemplar of sacrifices made by an American serviceman for his country – and for setting an almost impossibly high bar for the definition of what makes an American hero.
The men who died one hundred years ago on an obscure battlefield in France did so to prove American valor. Those who now send others to make that point should first have demonstrated valor themselves. Leaders who have seen the hell of wars are usually a good deal more careful about going to war than those who have not.