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Commentary: Christmas wish: not quite world peace

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2011 - Because I went to a Catholic grade school, I experienced none of the modern angst about how best to refer to the signature winter holiday. Dec. 25 was Christmas and that was that.

The nuns, of course, instructed us as to the religious significance of the occasion but recognized that we, like other kids, relished its secular celebration. Cashing in on the seasonal fervor, they promoted literacy by requiring students in the younger grades to write an annual letter to Santa Claus. This was a task that even malingerers like myself took seriously.

Actually, I'd harbored serious reservations about the existence of the merry old elf since Kindergarten. For one thing, our house didn't even have a fireplace, which made entry somewhat problematical. But employing a primitive formulation of Pascal's Gambit, I reasoned that disbelief was a sucker bet: If I was wrong there was much to lose; if I was right there was little to gain. I thus joined my less agnostic classmates and dutifully scratched out an ardent wish list to be sent to the North Pole.

Invariably, there'd be one little brown-nose who'd ask Santa for world peace. The nun would always read that letter aloud to the rest of the class to demonstrate what a bunch of self-centered, materialistic losers we all were. Gimme a break.

What 7-year-old kid is worried about world peace? In fact, my buddies and I all asked for toy weapons for our yuletide gifts. We saw no contradiction whatsoever in celebrating the birth of Christ with a battery-operated .50 caliber machine gun. Our parents obviously didn't notice the incongruity either, because there was a mini arsenal beneath the Christmas tree in every kid's house I visited.

Girls, of course, got dolls, makeup kits, toy ovens and other boring, non-lethal crap like that. But back then, girls had cooties so what would you expect?

Ironically, by the time we grew old enough to change our minds about the fairer sex and to genuinely desire world peace, it had become apparent that prospects for the latter hope were as improbable as a fat fairy in a red suit descending your nonexistent chimney to deliver armaments to children who'd been good throughout the year.

In the introduction to his seminal "Slaughterhouse-5," Kurt Vonnegut recounts a conversation he had with an earnest young writer who was working on an "important anti-war novel." The world-weary Vonnegut, who'd been captured by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge, suggested that he write an anti-gravity novel instead.

Experience tends to diminish expectation. For this Christmas, I will thus not hope for some unattainable dream like peace on earth, but rather will ask my fellow countrymen to finally digest a lesson that was concluded nearly 40 years ago.

Since the end of our armed involvement in the Vietnam War in early 1973, American has launched full-fledged invasions of five countries: Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq. Less robust efforts like the relief mission in Somalia or the air campaigns in Bosnia and Libya were also conducted but were limited in scope.

Setting aside the various moral justifications for the five incursions -- and if there was one for Panama, I'd like to hear it -- strategy has determined the relative success or failure of each. The first three expeditions were conducted according to the dictates of the Powell Doctrine, named after former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell -- who not coincidentally, is a Vietnam veteran.

In Grenada, Panama and Kuwait, the U.S. deployed overwhelming force against an easily identified adversary. Our troops pursued a clearly defined objective and their commanders had a viable exit strategy to employ after said objective was attained. All of these ventures were resounding military triumphs.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, as in Vietnam, we set about the murky task of pacifying a poorly understood indigenous population, most of whom didn't want us there in the first place. The enemy in each was as elusive as the definition of victory. Not surprisingly, these campaigns have yielded generally disappointing results.

On Dec. 15, President Obama announced the official end to our military involvement in Iraq. He proclaimed that our troops will return home "with their heads held high," and indeed they should. Combat extracts an extreme toll of courage and sacrifice, regardless of its justification.

But it's my hope that our understandable admiration for those who served will not obscure a critical analysis of the mission for which they were dispatched. At least 126,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the conflict as were some 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and police and approximately 19,000 "insurgents." 4,474 American GI's lost their lives; nearly 32,000 were wounded.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, we've spent $256 million a day since March 2003, to prosecute the Iraq War. Was this massive expenditure of blood and treasure worth the result?

Ultimately, time will answer that question but here's a hint: The only reason we left when we did is that the democratically elected government we installed there effectively voted us off the island.

I recently read an interview with a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. When asked about the wisdom of the effort, he replied, "Regret and worry are the two most useless emotions we have."

I suppose the young warrior is right, but if we don't regret our mistakes and worry about their recurrence, how will we ever stop making them?

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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