There was a time when you could say "postwar," and everyone knew exactly what you meant: the period immediately after the Big One. World War II was such an enormous undertaking — not only was it a world war, but it was the second one, which demands, according to the Law of Sequels, that it be bigger and badder than its predecessor — that for many years afterwards, if you mentioned "the war," everyone knew it was WWII you were talking about, even after Korea, which was given the dubious description of "police action," as though we were rounding up gang members at the 38th parallel. To this day, if I describe my home as a "postwar ranch house," people my age and above will immediately date it to the late 1940s or early 1950s. (It was, in fact, built in 1948, after the first Levittown, but before the idea of cookie-cutter tract homes had spread this far west; there is, so far as I know, only one other house in this neighborhood on this same floor plan, and it looks nothing like mine from the outside.)

Then came Vietnam, and it went on and on and on and the politicians droned on and on and on about how we should invade this or how we should bomb that or anything except "How the hell did we get ourselves into this mess in the first place?" Back then, we didn't toss out terms like "nation-building"; we argued that our presence was necessary to keep the place out of the hands of the Communists, and for some, that was that. For others, it wasn't enough, and eventually we beat a none-too-hasty retreat, which was followed promptly by the arrival of those very same Communists. Who knew?

What Vietnam did, apart from getting us a silver medal in a competition where we had just gotten used to the gold, was to obliterate the concept of "postwar" as I used to know it. For that matter, it did a number on the concept of "war" as I used to know it: I always thought of war as something that was incredibly intense and lasted only as long as was necessary to complete the mission. (Combat training, something I went through for a couple of months in the spring of 1972, tended to reinforce this notion.) But two American soldiers died in Vietnam in 1959, in a guerrilla strike at Bien Hoa, and then more of them died, and they kept dying for sixteen years, a period four times as long as our participation in World War II, and rather a lot of people got sick of the whole idea.

Still, nobody thinks of the period after 1975 as "postwar," perhaps because things weren't particularly peaceful thereafter, and thirty years later, things still aren't particularly peaceful. Do we choose our fights better these days? Maybe. I don't know if anything could have prevented the fiasco in Vietnam. I'm not especially happy with the way things are going in Iraq, but I'm not about to argue that things would be better, or even less bloody, had we left Saddam Hussein in the big chair in Baghdad. Nor do I agree with the current call by some for a definite withdrawal date, if only because I remember what happened to Saigon — um, Ho Chi Minh City — the last time we did that sort of thing. But if I'm still something of a hawk on Iraq, I do wish we could wind up operations there some time within the near future, provided we could do so without sacrificing the fledgling semi-democracy we worked so hard to create.

This morning, during a radio talk show, I quipped something to a coworker about the present day being Iraq's "pre-postwar period." I'd like to think I was prescient for once — and I'd like to reclaim that word "postwar" once more.

The Vent

23 June 2005

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