Opinion Editorials

General Robert E. Lee noted that "it is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it." With the approach of Memorial Day, the occasion when America remembers those who have fallen in defense of liberty, it is appropriate that we reflect on the words of a warrior revered for his professionalism and dedication. Those of us who believe firmly in the imperative of ensuring that our armed forces are prepared to fight the wars of the future should not lose sight of the fact that no level of technological sophistication will alter the fundamental reality that when the shooting starts, people will die--including those whose deaths were unintended. The images of devastation, of broken bodies and grieving relatives, once again fill our television screens and reaffirm that technology may evolve, but basic human nature does not. The ethnic and religious hatreds that emerged from the shadow of the Cold War have reminded us that the 40-year standoff between East and West was an aberration in world history. The carnage endemic throughout much of the world today is more representative of the history of man than was the nuclear stalemate that prevented minor irritations from mushrooming into major conflagations. If the defining moment of the international community as it emerged from the horrors of World War II was to never again permit an absolute evil on the order of the Holocaust, the years that followed demonstrated the ease with which atrocities on a massive scale can continue to be perpetrated. While the Holocaust stands alone in the annals of history for its single-minded pursuit of the elimination of an entire people, a lexicon begun with words like Auschwitz and Treblinka was too soon expanded to include Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Communist rule in the Soviet Union and China resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. Even today, governmental edicts from Pyongyang lead directly to the starvation deaths of thousands. As we reflect upon the meaning of our national day of remembrance, it is worthwhile to bear in mind the tragedies certain to occur when those with the capability and the will to intervene on the side of the weak fail to act. Which brings me to the role of the United States in world affairs. The American public will not tolerate a policy of endlessly intervening abroad when our interests are not at stake. Yet, that same public is extraordinarily sensitive to the images of suffering in conflicts from which we abstain. Those images drew us into Somalia; a later evolution in that mission resulted in the death of 18 American soldiers with over 70 more wounded. Our interests were not at stake in Somalia; our values, however, were. When the delicate balance between the two was fatefully upset, a successful effort at feeding the hungry became a military and political catastrophe. We were driven to act, though, out of a deeply held sense that our's is not a nation that can ignore suffering. As this is written, the United States and its allies are in the seventh week of an extensive bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. To date, we have lost no personnel to hostile fire, although we lost an Apache helicopter crew during a training exercise in Albania. Whether this state of affairs will remain is questionable, especially if the President reverses himself and agrees to prepare for the possibility of ground operations. We cannot assume that Operation Allied Force will remain a casualty-free undertaking. We are at war. If we are to prevail over the brutally repressive regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and reverse his gains in Kosovo, we will have to risk the lives of U.S. servicemen. That is the sad reality of diplomacy's failure to compel a hostile dictator to comply with international demands that his campaign of "ethnic cleansing" be stopped. Because we have been so fortunate and have not lost any aircrews to hostile fire, the tendency of the public to expect military operations to be essentially risk-free has been reinforced. Combined with the astonishingly low number of American casualties suffered during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the reality of war has been obscured. We have the finest military in the world, but it has been taken for granted too long. As Congress and the President debate the size and structure of the armed forces, too much emphasis is placed on the hypothetical requirement to be able to wage two major wars "nearly simultaneously." Many looked at our success in the Desert Storm and extrapolated from it what they saw as a clear excess of military strength. Totally ignored was the day-to-day demand placed on the armed forces and the very real need to respond to unforeseen contingencies without sacrificing other commitments. The enormous strain being placed on the military by the demands of Operation Allied Force, however, have forced a serious reevaluation of precisely what our defense needs are. In short, the fragility of a military capable of waging a Desert Storm was underappreciated at the same time that same military was being asked to do more and more in virtually every region of the globe. When called upon to serve, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will make the ultimate sacrifice. But the combination of over 10 years of shrinking defense budgets and expanding commitments have resulted in a crisis in military readiness that is only now being partially addressed. In the short run, the result is a loss of experienced personnel as the hardships of military life force people to leave active duty. In the long run, the result of that neglect will be the death in battle of Americans due to lower aggregate levels of experience and equipment long in need of replacement. The demands placed on our armed forces are enormous; the attention paid to their care must be commensurate. The United States is a miracle of history. Never before was a country imbued with the sense of purpose that was a defining characteristic of this nation at its inception. We may debate the merits of intervening abroad, but our propensity to act out of the most generous of motivations is unprecedented. Whether walking through the sacred grounds of France and Belgium where the fallen from Normandy and the Bulge lie or standing before the Wall on which is engraved the names of over 58,000 American servicemen and women, the price we have paid as a nation has been dear. But the ideals for which those sacrifices were made survive. "With liberty and justice for all" is not an empty sentiment; it is the foundation of our national consciousness. The United States has fought in too many wars, but that is a product of the resiliency of evil and is testament to the need to remain vigilant lest the ideals upon which our country was founded fall victim to isolationism and apathy. We should not send our military personnel to fight where our interests are not engaged, but we must recognize that very often our ideals our inseparable from colder calculations of national interest. We are who we are because those ideals shape our view of the world. This Memorial Day, it would be well to pay adage to the words of General Lee, but we must also recall those of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." The evils of the world would have been incomparably worse without the sacrifice of so many good men. We must never fail to remember the American soldiers who died in the cause of freedom; we owe them nothing less.