Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Two Military History Episodes to Celebrate George Washington’s Birthday

Washington’s Birthday should be commemorated as more than a retail bonanza.

The previous post for Friends of 1776 has tried to revise his birthday celebration as more serious, more patriotic, something more fitting for the occasion.

One suggestion was to award each year a military history literary prize. Washington was a general for much of his active life; he was our Supreme Commander during the Revolutionary War.

Here are two military stories that have produced good reading.
They deserve wide distribution. Each is very different from the other, but showing particular courage in its own way.

Recently published, Hero of the Pacific, revives the exploits of John Basilone, who today is still a revered hero at Camp Pendleton, the huge Marine base in Northern San Diego County. New recruits undergo basic training hearing about the Basilone Marine unit whipping the hell out of the Japanese on Guadalcanal.

I live close to Pendleton, and have known about the main road on base called Basilone Road for a long time. Basilone’s background was working-class, part of the huge working class fighting force in World War II in the Pacific and later in Korea and Vietnam. He never attended high school. His life was colorful. Basilone was a member of the peacetime army. He was picked to promote war bonds back in the States, had a notorious Hollywood liaison, and actively worked to get back into combat “with the boys”.

As a champion boxer and marine machine gunner, he wanted to be back in the action. There his celebrated military skills could be really utilized. Basilone died shortly after landing on the beach at Iwo Jima. He had the right gung-ho fighter spirit for the Marine Corps. What better memory for him than to be identified with Iwo Jima. His story has faded, although his hometown of Raritan, N.J. still holds a parade very year in his honor.

This well-reviewed book strives to renew the legacy of the kind of working-class hero who won the endless battles against the Japanese in the Pacific. Today, our volunteer force is changing warfare; new heroes are still created, but there is a greater separation between the military and civilians than over fifty years ago. The local newspapers publish the names of the active military dead every week. This week, the local casualty is Army SPC Jonathan D. Welch, 19, Yorba Linda, California. I want to dedicate this post to him. He was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan. The casualties’ ages are still mostly very young, their rank is usually very low, and they do not originate from Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The second selection for an award is very different. “Good Time Charlie” Wilson was a long-term Congressman from small-town Texas, a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee, living with style and flair. He died in Texas last week at 76. His biography, Charlie Wilson’s War (2003), makes for some sizzling reading and a later Tom Hanks movie was a commercial success.

Wilson used the secret fiscal dealings of Congress and heavy participation of the CIA to wage his own private war against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan. In the 80s, he led a massive money and weapons drive to supply the Mujahedin, the Afghan guerillas against the Russians. He, in a sense, fought the last hot battle of the Cold War. The last Russian left Afghanistan in 1989, and the Soviet Union promptly collapsed.

Many called Wilson without scruples and ethics. His tactics were questionable, and the reputations of those he dealt with were quite shady. Wilson always lived the good life, while in contrast Basilone and his fellow Marines slugged it out in appalling conditions over forty years before.

Were Wilson’s actions entirely wrong? I don’t think so. But it’s hard to judge them entirely objectively. The Mujahedin evolved into the Taliban, and we’re fighting them today.

Military history is a mixed bag, from the massive battles to countless episodes behind the scenes. How much do we know about them? Hopefully, as much as possible. If the writing is complete and accurate, we all gain. -- Renata Breisacher Mulry

1 comment:

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