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Good Wars, Bad Wars, And Afghanistan

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For the sake of our nation's tired soul, I pray President Obama gets his Afghanistan policy not only right, but good.

Wars, because they are sanctioned killing, sort themselves out by up-or-down vote: They are either good or bad. Given the blood, sweat, tears, and, crucially, the purpose of the killing, a war is deemed worth it -- or not. Doing the deeming aren't the historians sussing out the pattern emerging in the bloodied carpet postwar, or the politicians who committed the nation to the blood-letting and have reputations to defend. Final verdict of a war's worthiness is rendered in the hearts of the people. "Sentimentalist" as that may sound, it's in the realm of sentiment where this verdict is reached.

In our recent history it's World War II of course that exemplifies the good war, while of course Vietnam and Iraq exemplify the bad -- the "of course" reflecting that broad public sentiment. By no means is this to deny the valor and suffering of our troops in Vietnam or Iraq (as a former military wife I personally relate to the military). But it is to state that, at the end of the day -- a cliché phrase that actually applies to war: there is an end-judgment -- it is the valor of the cause that counts.

Afghanistan is a good war whose cause has gone bad. Inherited with other colossal messes from the Bush-Cheney regime, our new president has the task of transforming this bad war back into a good one, with exit strategy. Talk about mission formidable! Chesty types like former V.P. Dick Cheney mock him for "dithering" in his decision. (Don't we wish Bush-Cheney had dithered more and lied less about diverting focus from Afghanistan to Iraq?) Appropriately, Mr. Obama has taken his precious time, weighing the odds of mentoring a corrupt Karzai government into good governance and becoming a trusted partner again. As he has stated often, he knows he has to get this decision right.

I pray Mr. Obama gets it good, too, for this reason: In all my American life, I have known nothing but bad war -- from Vietnam through Iraq and now Afghanistan.

Deep truth to tell, I am so terribly, terribly tired of it, this life-long season of bad war -- the bad taste in the mouth, the bad feeling between "fellow" citizens, the bad feeling about my government and its leaders, the protesting in the streets, the sorrow in the soul.

For bad wars spawn not only bad policy -- it's no accident America descended to torture during a bad war (Iraq) -- but they spawn what Shakespeare called a "mangled Peace": mangled by chesty types who refight the old war and bang the drum for the next one to restore the nation's honor, while the more pacific pursuits of education and the arts and humanities founder. Shakespeare lamented how life in this "naked, poor" peace tends to "grow to wildness," writing:

"Even so our houses, and ourselves, and children,
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages -- as soldiers will,
That nothing do but meditate on blood...."

What's staggering to consider is this: Eighty-seven percent -- 87% -- of Americans living today were born since 1945, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meaning: The vast majority of Americans now living have no lived memory of, but only tales about, the last good war -- World War II. Meaning: The vast majority of Americans today have known only bad war, growing "like savages" to adulthood, existing with mangled soul in an era of what former Army colonel and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich calls "permanent war."

Which is why hearing the World War II generation, whose numbers are fast fading, speak of the high purpose and solidarity of that war -- "We felt like we were in it together" -- seems like a dream. I hate war, but if it must be, I yearn for something I've never known: a good war.

Barack Obama yearns for the same, I believe. His journey to Dover Air Force Base to welcome home the returning dead was assailed by the right as a political stunt, to show up George Bush who, unconscionably, never went to Dover and even forbade photos of the returning coffins. But Mr. Obama went, I believe, to meditate on the enormity of war and how to salvage this one. He knows we must reverse this "twilight" moment in our history.

And Tuesday he will announce his new Afghan policy -- to an audience of new warriors, at West Point military academy.

Get it right, Mr. President. And, please, get it good.

Carla Seaquist is a playwright working on a play titled Prodigal. Her book of op-eds, essays, and dialogues, Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character, is now out (www.carlaseaquist.com).

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