By Richard Reeves
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif.—This prosperous enclave on the cliff overlooking Santa Monica Bay has many virtues, and one of the big ones is a great hometown Fourth of July parade.
For more than three hours, folks sit on the curbs or on lawn chairs and watch America go by. Bands and Boy Scouts, firemen and bagpipers, veterans from half a dozen wars, politicians, beginning with the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, and more flags than you can count, most of them probably made in China. There was even a young man walking the streets passing out "Muslims for Peace" brochures. Sugar Ray Leonard was honorary mayor.
You go away humming and drumming. And then I realized what I was happily humming: the song George M. Cohan wrote in 1917 as American troops headed for the latest and biggest outbreak of world war in Europe:
"Over there, over there,
"Send the word, send the word over there
"That the Yanks are coming,
"The Yanks are coming,
"The drums rum-tumming
"So prepare, say a pray’r,
"Send the word, send the word to beware.
"We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
"And we won’t come back till it’s over
Then it occurred to me that it’s never going to be over, over there. We’re never coming back. We have more than 250,000 volunteer soldiers, sailors and airmen scattered (too thin) all over the globe. By numbers, the largest contingent is in Afghanistan, 103,700, and in Iraq, 85,600. In Germany are 52,440; in Japan, 35,000; in Korea, 28,599; in Italy, 9,660; and 9,015 in Great Britain. Another 20,000 or so are at sea.
Then we have almost 3 million active duty troops and reservists at home. It is a lot of power, and our intentions are usually pretty good, if not always very smart. Most of our thinking is based on the idea that all people want to be like us. Actually, they want to be themselves and those hopes were often frustrated by British colonialists who drew lines creating countries filled with people they had never seen. Many of today’s wars are among people trying to break free of those borders and define themselves—usually through civil war or terrorism.
As often as not, hearing the far guns, the Yanks come to help them do it our way. And we get away with it, usually, because we have half the military power and equipment and innovation in the world. Yes, the Chinese are catching on or up, but their rise will take a while. Unfortunately, all that power is generally ineffective over time as the locals duke it out, taking all the American material that’s possible and ignoring the Americans on the ground as much as possible. That is what superpower means. The British tried it in the 19th century, and they were better at it than we are—but in the end, they still lost, and they went home before it was over over there.
Now, over here, much of our national needs, what we call "nation building" overseas, are in great need of help. But money is fungible, and the government is under pressure to reduce spending in what are deeply hard times for many Americans. They could use some of the money being skimmed off by the bandit-leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq and places with lesser problems over there. But we are caught in a familiar modern American dilemma. The country has a liberal Democratic president who, like many of his predecessors, has to prove he’s tough. That’s why he was so hawkish on Afghanistan during the 2008 campaign. Most Republicans, but not all, think like Ronald Reagan, who often said that the federal budget should give the military what it wants—and then start thinking about other things.
Partly because of that, we have reached the point where we may have to give ourselves what we need and then see what else we can do. George M. Cohan was a wonderful patriotic songwriter, but no one ever suggested he should run the country.
© 2011 Universal Uclick
U.S. Navy / MC2 Mark Logico