Later this week we pass two historic milestones. On Wednesday the American military mission in Iraq officially ends — the last combat brigade left earlier this month — or at least is transformed principally from warmaking to peacekeeping. On Thursday we mark the 65th anniversary of the official end of World War II.
The two wars began differently — one provoked by an infamous attack on a slumbering nation, the other by suspicions, never realized, that infamous weapons of mass destruction were being prepared for use. Eventually both wars, initiated for reasons still controversial today — we ask how ships and planes could have been so vulnerable in 1941, and how Americans could have been so gullible in 2003 — were fought with the rhetoric of freedom.
But the end of American combat in the Persian Gulf — which President Barack Obama has warned will not bring "the end of American sacrifice in Iraq" — does not possess the finality of the end of World War II, nor the clarity.
Of course, clarity is in the eyes of the beholder, and while Winston Churchill (then out of office) and Harry Truman (only five months in office) foresaw the beginning of a bitter Cold War, hardly anyone in Times Square or on the USS Missouri did.
For it was on the deck of the Missouri — the "Mighty Mo," in the argot of the sailors who filled its berths from World War II all the way to Gulf War I — that the greatest conflict in the history of the world ended. The peace signed there in Tokyo Bay signaled the conclusion of a struggle whose cost ran, as University of North Carolina historian Gerhard L. Weinberg put it in his massive history of the war, to an "absolutely unprecedented magnitude."
There will be no Missouri moment at the end of the Iraq war, nor much clarity — even the false clarity that followed the surrender of the Japanese. There is no Pax Americana in the Middle East or anywhere else while the threat of terrorism reigns, the ascendancy of China continues, the rise of India, Brazil and South Korea accelerates, the uncertainties in Russia deepen and the domestic economy teeters between recession and recovery.
World War II veterans now are dying at a rate of about 1,100 a day. Soon men and women who fought or remembered that war will be as rare as Civil War veterans were after World War I — or as rare as veterans of the Great War were as the first Gulf War ended. Our universities are stocked with historians, but our neighborhoods are losing witnesses, and before long the meaning of the Missouri, and what happened there, will be part of our history but no longer part of our memory.
It is worthwhile, in our period of war and woe, to remember the Missouri not in the way we were bid to remember the Maine, but for the breathtaking sweep of history that ended, and for, as we learned from hard experience, the frightening history that began there. That Missouri moment, which began when the defeated Japanese boarded on the port side, climbed up to the deck and signed for peace with their backs to Tokyo in a ceremony that lasted but 23 minutes, was one of those few discernible boundaries in history, a clear marker between the world before and after, set out on the last American battleship built (keel laid 11 months before Pearl Harbor in 1941), the last battleship commissioned (five days after D-day in 1944), and the last battleship decommissioned (1992).
Before representatives of the warring powers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, with five stars on his shoulders and remembered more as a man of war than of peace, uttered this remarkable paragraph:
"It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past — a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice."
Sixty-five years later, with the terrible tyrannies of the Nazis and Japanese eliminated, but dignity, freedom, tolerance and justice still far from universal, the USS Missouri sits in Pearl Harbor. It is museum and monument both, and if you walk around the ship you will see tacked on the bulletin boards orders from its mission in Operation Desert Storm, making it perhaps the only bridge — besides former President George H.W. Bush — between World War II and the conflicts in the Persian Gulf.
The year 2010 has had many important 65th anniversaries, testimony to the crowded hours that filled the year 1945, including the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt (April 12) and Adolf Hitler (April 30), V-E Day (May 8), the explosion of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9), and V-J Day (Aug. 15).
The temptation is to view those events and that time as a simpler, more clear-eyed era, without the ambiguities of today. That temptation is reinforced when we compare the way the war in Iraq is winding down, with a few muted speeches and quiet troop transfers, with the way World War II ended, with signing pens on the deck of a mighty battleship in the harbor of a conquered empire.
But that is a dangerous temptation. MacArthur left the peace table to supervise the occupation of Japan only to find himself in a war in Korea in five years. The hot war of 1939-1945 was followed by a Cold War that lasted from 1945 to 1989.
It turned out that the struggle against Hitler and Tojo was not the final in a battle with dictators but merely the semifinal of a broader, more complex conflict. World War II was followed by a competition between communism and the West that for a generation preoccupied our foreign policy and warped our domestic life. That prospect was foreseen but was for the most part foresworn in 1945.
So while there is no Missouri moment this week in Iraq, let us be grateful, not regretful, that in 2010 there are no illusions either.
© 2010 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette