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V for vacillate

Victory in war—and the cost of victory—is no longer stylish

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THE YEAR AFTER I DROPPED OUT of college to get married, radio personality Paul Harvey came to speak at our campus. Fifty years ago the “radio personality” tag would have been superfluous; Paul Harvey’s voice, with its clipped consonants and tangy vowels, was as familiar as Grandma’s to most Americans. Even my mass-­mediaphobe husband, a graduate student at the time, wanted to hear that voice in person.

Though best known for The Rest of the Story, Harvey was primarily a news and opinion journalist. The Vietnam conflict had just ended, messily and inconclusively, but in his campus talk he found something hopeful. To him, that very messiness proved that “war has gone out of style.” The audience responded enthusiastically to this obvious applause line. Some of them had profound reasons for wishing it so, having come home traumatized from Vietnam or having lost friends or relatives there. Many of them, like my husband, had narrowly dodged the draft. Was Harvey right?

In a way, yes. War has gone out of style in the sense that we no longer know how to do it. But armed conflict—innocents caught in the crossfire, hostile invasions, atrocities and tragedies and destruction raining from the sky—is still very much in vogue. What’s no longer stylish is victory.

World War II ended with two significant days: V-E (Victory in Europe) on May 8, 1945, and V-J (Victory over Japan) on Aug. 15 of the same year. Both were unconditional surrenders—no cease-fires or negotiated settlements. Germany and Japan gave up and laid down their arms; after six devastating years, the war was over and the good guys won. It took great determination and immense human sacrifice to lean in until the enemy unconditionally surrendered, but that was the cost of victory. Since then, victory doesn’t seem worth the cost.

Korea ended in a stalemate. Vietnam was a defeat. Iraq followed lightning success with lingering failure, and Afghanistan fell in disaster. Since 1950, America’s only military successes have been military actions: get in, achieve the objective, get out. Grenada, Panama, and Desert Storm were so quick they’re barely remembered, but popular at the time and “successful” in removing the dictator or freeing up the oil. When a war lasts more than a few months, Americans lose confidence—or worse, we lose interest. The protests grow louder and the dissenting voices louder: We have our own problems to solve at home, they say; we’re not the world’s policemen; we have no business muscling in on another nation’s problems as though we were so virtuous ourselves. When a few flag-draped coffins give way to multiple body bags, a muddled, messy end is probably not far off.

If the conflict isn’t clear, neither is the objective. A direct attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet was clear: Japan hit us at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, so we hit them back and didn’t stop until the enemy was completely broken. The next test of our will came not from a nation but from a terror group sheltered in Afghanistan and shadowed by a loosely affiliated terror network. Stamping out one fire ignited others, the first objective shifted to the next, and at the end of 20 long years it seems we accomplished nothing. Perhaps because no one could explain what victory would look like.

Israel knows what victory looks like: the destruction of Hamas. Likewise Ukraine: the expulsion of Russian troops. Both are responding to direct attacks by identifiable enemies, a form of war that hasn’t gone out of style and never will. If the United States gets involved at all, it shouldn’t be to define victory for them, but to determine whose side we’re on and what we are willing to do to help. Vacillation wins neither war nor peace.

The Western world vacillates, but God does not. He considered victory worth the cost, and won—not only our unconditional surrender but also our peace. Whatever conflict lies ahead, that’s our victory too.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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