As of Monday, the war in Iraq and World War II have now both lasted three years, eight months and seven days. Veterans nostalgically recall the Good War as a time of unity on the home front, shared sacrifice and national purpose. And Iraq? Not so much.
John Keegan, a renowned British military historian, has called World War II the greatest single event in the history of mankind. It was fought on six of the seven continents, in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and before it was over an estimated 50-million people had perished. The war in Iraq will have an indelible effect on the Middle East, and it has already deeply scarred America, but it is neither as sweeping nor as consequential as WWII. For Americans there is another significant difference between the two wars that I find deeply troubling. In WWII, the United States was turned into a war machine and everyone had a role. Ivy League graduates were drafted or volunteered to serve alongside high school dropouts, while at home every family, rich and poor, was subject to gasoline, meat and sugar rationing. Now the American men and women who have volunteered to fight in Iraq are drawn mostly from working-class communities. They're serving for modest wages at a high price while almost nothing in the way of sacrifice is being asked of those families who have no one involved. However one feels about the policies that have made such a mess of the Iraq war, it is politically and morally unacceptable to be so distanced from those in harm's way and their families.
Tom Brokaw, NBC special correspondent and author of The Greatest Generation
A striking aspect of any comparison is that, intentionally or unintentionally, the country is doing everything in Iraq the opposite way from the way it dealt with WWII. Then, we had plans about what to do after military victory; this time, we had none. Then, we had a GI Bill of Rights for returning veterans; now, far from preparing for the problems of numerous returning wounded, Veterans Administration personnel are being cut. Then, we had higher taxes, especially on those with higher incomes; now we have lower taxes, especially for those with high incomes. Then, the president had family members in the military, one of whom died in Normandy; now, there appears to be no one in the White House with a family member in harm's way. Perhaps that is related to another difference: When our soldiers faced a new danger in Iraq, the president said, "Bring 'em on"; during World War II, the president went on the radio and led the people in prayer.
Gerhard Weinberg, professor emeritus of history, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II
WWII was the seminal event of the last century and we paid a heavy price for our role, with more than 408,000 killed and even more wounded. We started the war in Iraq and what once seemed to be a relatively easy victory has turned into U.S. troops giving and risking their lives trying to quell sectarian violence with no clear victory in sight. In WWII, we had the goodwill of nearly all the American people. In Iraq, support is waning. In WWII, we knew who the enemy was. In Iraq, one is never certain.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., served in the Army from 1942-1945
The current war in Iraq bears practically no resemblance to WWII. Fully aware that the home front no longer supports its efforts, the American military I saw in Iraq has hunkered down. Avoiding risk, and subsequent casualties, has become a primary mission for soldiers and commanders who understand that their sacrifices have become a political liability and the subject of increasing public scorn. Both wars reflected the America that sent its soldiers to fight. One America rallied around an idea and committed itself to victory despite the horrible cost. One did not.
Michael Gambone, author of The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society, was a military adviser attached to the 172nd Stryker Brigade, stationed at Forward Operating Base Courage in Mosul, Iraq, from January-May 2006
During WWII, the mission was clear: defeat the enemies who attacked us. Although the battles and casualties were in far-off places, a large part of the burden was felt by families here at home. Women went to work assembling planes, communities practiced air raid drills, and we were all committed to winning the war. Virtually every household lost a family member or friend in action, and we all wept when the notices were delivered. But we had no doubt that our leaders were telling us the truth, and we had strong faith in our mission. Now the "mission" in Iraq is far less clear. Americans are disillusioned by the incompetence and deceitfulness of our civilian leadership. We were misled even before the war began.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., an Army corporal who served in Europe from 1942-1946
You have to be wary of romanticized historical retrospection: 292,000 Americans died in WWII and 60-million people died worldwide. To wish that we were somehow back in WWII, or to wish to be fighting in a war like that is to wish for awful things to befall the civilized world. If you go back and look at any publication from the corresponding time in 1944, you will see a nation totally and completely at war. The leadership had convinced the country that it was fighting an existential war that required the commitment of the entire population. Even though we've been told that Iraq is an existential war, there's been no concomitant effort to involve the country. Soldiers know that. Soldiers feel that.
Rick Atkinson covered the Iraq war for the Washington Post and is the author of An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943.
Patriotism was omnipresent, dissent minimal during WWII. Today, as the number of casualties grows, our interest in continuing the war diminishes. Only 350,000 women served in the U.S. military during WWII (as opposed to 15-million men). This was a total war with clear battle lines and clear enemies and a role for every man, woman and child on the home front and in the military. In contrast, today women constitute more than 10 percent of all military branches, and 15 to 20 percent of the entering classes at the academies are female. They are serving in Iraq and are also dying. Newspapers called me during the Persian Gulf War to ask if the public was ready to see women returning in body bags. No one has called this time.
D'ann Campbell, author of Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era
Support for FDR grew as the war continued, just as support for Bush has plummeted. We financed the war by a mix of taxation and borrowing. People bought $50-billion worth of war bonds. Paying taxes in America became patriotic. This war is not being financed by taxes. The president is giving tax cuts and financing it with borrowing. And the borrowing is mostly not from Americans, but from the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and others.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., served in the Army from October 1944 to November 1946
I was an enthusiastic bombardier during WWII. I believed it was a just war. It had a moral core to it that prompted me to join and that remains very important, though it is more complicated for me today. The worst thing about WWII is that it then served as a model for all the ugly wars that followed that don't have any moral content. Every leader of every country that we're fighting against became Hitler.
Howard Zinn, a historian and Air Force officer from 1943-1945
The Bush administration has repeatedly attempted to justify the war in Iraq by comparing it to World War II. As a boy of 19 in the spring of 1944, I volunteered for line duty out of a safe college billet. I knew who our enemies were, and I knew something of the preposterous evil of the Nazis. Four months later, in France, I experienced its liberation from the Nazis. I saw a nation freed from tyranny, a people who welcomed us with open arms and warm hearts. At the end of that summer, German shrapnel blew a hole in my head, sliced off my right buttock, and left a fragment of shell in my pelvis. But I have always carried that wonderful memory of truly freeing a people. The war in Iraq never had this quality of true "liberation" that I knew in France. Rooted in a policy of pre-emption and faulty intelligence, fought with enemies often invisible and hidden, it was doomed to failure from its beginning.
Edward W. Wood Jr., an infantryman during World War II, is the author of Worshiping the Myths of World War II
I don't blame the soldiers today for decrying the fact that there's no enemy to come to grips with. Everything is so diaphanous. These are theologically motivated people spread all over the globe and it's a different type of war. I remember when the kamikaze pilots were starting to fly, we all were aghast that anybody would deliberately commit suicide. Now, in this war, that's commonplace. It's very difficult to maintain a war and to sustain a war effort if you're on the front and you don't think the people are behind you.
Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., served in the Navy from 1942-1946
Without question, the Second World War serves as a kind of default symbol for national virtue, and every president since that conflict has attempted to justify major domestic and international initiatives by evoking its memory. Our memories of World War II often emphasize the collective efforts of ordinary Americans to improve the world. In its sloppiest form, though, the World War II analogy is used to inflate threats, to name enemies, and to elide distinctions between groups or historical forces that should not be confused with one another. We could easily make a list, for example, of a dozen or more figures who have been sold to the American public as the "next Hitler" since 1950, and we have only to look at the concept of "Islamofascism" - quite possibly the most ahistorical neologism I've ever encountered - to see how some commentators pretend to understand the complexities of political Islam by summoning up the most frightening images of the 20th century.
David Hoogland Noon, author of the article "Operation Enduring Analogy: World War II, the War on Terror and the Uses of Historical Memory," and a history professor at the University of Alaska, Southeast
The divisions here at home are decidedly more vivid than they were during WWII. The longer this engagement takes, the greater the strain on the community. And while we have a collective response of support for the people from our area who are fighting, I don't think it's the same kind of response you had in WWII. I lived with my grandmother then, and I remember we were asked to collect the grease from cooking. Everybody did something to help. No one's doing anything like that now.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, an Air Force pilot from 1943 to 1946