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Lowman S. Henry

Commentary:

Exit Strategy

America finally ends a difficult and divisive war

by Lowman S. Henry, CEO
Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research


More than 30,000 on-lookers turned out to witness the historic occasion. A gentle breeze blew as soldiers in their best dress uniforms escorted the flag-draped caskets taking the earthly remains of the last brave men to be buried in what turned out to be a lengthy and costly war.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the war began pundits and politicians alike predicted the overwhelming military superiority of the United States of America would bring the conflict to a swift conclusion. It was not to be. The enemy was fighting on its own territory, highly motivated to defend their homeland.

When “major hostilities”ended, winning the peace proved to be even more difficult than winning the war. A new political order had to be established. There were some who prospered under the old ways, and now harbored lingering resentment over their loss of status. Further, their nation’s economy was built on the subjugation and inhumane treatment of their own people, so a new economy had to be built from the ground up. And then there were the millions who had been oppressed. Now liberated, they had to learn how to live as free men and women. The rebuilding would take decades, and in many was still remains a work in progress.

But now, finally, with the burial of these last eight sailors, America has achieved closure.

The war in Iraq? Bosnia? Vietnam? No, actually the scene was Charleston, South Carolina. The war America had finally found an exit strategy for was the one it had with itself. You see, the sailors laid to rest in April of 2004 were members of a Confederate submarine crew who lost their lives when the vessel H.L. Hunley sank after a battle with a union warship.

Although the route to the cemetery was lined with fluttering stars and stripes, the flags on the coffins were those of the Confederate States of America. The smartly-dressed soldiers conveying the sailors to their final resting place were re-enactors in Civil War-era uniforms. The on-lookers, citizens of one re-united nation, came from states both North and South.

The burial of the Confederate sailors, whose bodies were recovered recently along with the H.L. Hunley, comes at a particularly difficult time for our nation. It occurred during a week when America’s efforts to bring freedom and liberty in Iraq came under assault by those in that country who prospered under the old, repressive regime and who are now fighting back against the establishment of a new nation where personal liberty will flourish.

Mounting unrest, and escalating causalities among U.S. troops, brought with it a wave of criticism at home questioning President Bush’s ability to “wage the peace” in Iraq. In this age when plot-lines wrap up neatly at the end of each television season, many cannot understand why the situation in Iraq has not been resolved, and U.S. troops brought home.

But those criticizing George Bush for the lack of an exit strategy in Iraq need only look at the lessons of history to find their expectations are completely unrealistic. In the mid 1990s President Bill Clinton promised us troops would remain in Bosnia for only six months. They are still there. American troops remain stationed in Korea – decades after the end of “major hostilities” in that conflict. In fact, America still maintains a significant military presence in Germany and Japan dating back to World War II.

And then there is the scene that played out in Charleston. Let us not forget that binding together a nation after a war cannot be achieved over night. The reconstruction of the South, complicated by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln who sought a gentle touch in repatriating his countrymen, went poorly because a more vindictive attitude prevailed.

There is no doubt the wounded psyche of America took decades to heal long after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It was the gathering storm clouds of World War I that finally reunited this nation in a common cause. Yet, even today, in some quarters, resentment lingers over the War Between the States.

It is unreasonable for us to expect Iraq to achieve in just one year something that took our nation well over 100 years to accomplish. Yet, just as the moral imperative was there to end the unconscionable practice of slavery, America has a calling to bring freedom and liberty to the 25 million oppressed people of Iraq.

The mounting casualties in Iraq are indeed painful for a nation such as ours to endure. We value life, and treasure the blessings of liberty. Yet it is precisely because of those values that we must maintain our resolve.

Many Americans and Iraqis have already died in the cause of freedom for that land. As a great leader from another time observed we should take “increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion” and “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” There had never been a darker day for our nation when Abraham Lincoln uttered those words. Yet, can you imagine him turning back?


Lowman Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc., a Harrisburg-based non-profit, educational foundation, and host of the Lincoln Radio Journal.