It is the soldiers who fight the wars on the battlefields and the politicians who squander their victories in conference rooms and at lavish banquets. The military and political history of the United States for over two centuries is a history of wars that had to be refought and victories that turned into truces and retreats when politicians had the chance to work their magic on them.
The failure by politicians to finish the War in Iraq during the Gulf War led to it being refought now. The failure to settle the basic questions in Europe after WW1 led to WW2. The failure to make the Allied Intervention in Russia count and force back the Bolsheviks led to the Cold War.
On Memorial Day it is appropriate to remember that forgotten war, for the soldiers who died there and the cause that was lost and the lessons it holds for us.
In 1918, two expeditions of US troops, the American Expeditionary Force Siberia and the Polar Bear Expedition entered Russia and left within a year or two-- leaving several hundred dead behind them as well many more crippled for life. When compared to the conditions that would break the German army decades later fighting much further West-- the relatively light casualties and performance of American troops was nothing short of spectacular. Much like Iraq however, it was not seen that way at the time.
1918 and 1919 were crucial years. They were the years of the closing gate. The last years when the chance to break the Bolshevik hold on Russia was still possible. The last chance to ward off the murders of millions and a global war that might have ended in the nuclear annihilation of mankind.
The 15,000 American forces stationed in Russia did not lack for courage, they did however lack a mission beyond the kind of peacekeeping and reconstruction role US troops found themselves in when stationed in Iraq. President Wilson had determined that the United States was to remain neutral but as in Vietnam and as in Iraq, American forces once again found themselves trapped dealing with the corrupt and bandit ridden 'friendly' government that was the only alternative to the Bolsheviks and the ruthless and murderous Bolshevik forces adept at ambushes, blending in with the civilian population and guerrilla warfare.
Under orders to protect the railways from constant Bolshevik terrorist sabotage and Cossack bandit raids, American troops found themselves forced to fight both sides, the Communists and the Cossack bandits of General Semenoff, at the same time. Like the 'White Mice' in Vietnam or the Iraqi police, the Cossack forces represented the only alternative to the Communist enemy yet were themselves so rotten, corrupt and vicious that they were utterly useless for fighting the enemy and good for nothing except terrorizing civilians and lining their own pockets. The failure to establish a government and a military force worth fighting for, doomed the cause of freedom in Russia, in Vietnam and likely in Iraq as well.
The failure to give American troops a meaningful combat role, left US troops on the defensive, trying to protect civilian infrastructure against all sides in an increasingly chaotic conflict where they could not seize the advantage or act decisively. A description that could suit either the US forces in Iraq or Russia.
In Russia, President Wilson's idealism and determination to end war, squandered an opportunity that might have greatly changed the face of the 20th century. Had the United States committed itself to defeating the Bolshevik forces while bringing an orderly command to Anti-Bolshevik forces, most of whom were little better than thugs and bandits, instead of resisting the French, Japanese and British agenda-- the Soviet Union might have been crushed in the cradle before it ever emerged to threaten the world.
After 9/11, the United States had the chance to lead a genuine war against Islamic terrorism. In Iraq, the United States had the chance to bring Iran-- the world's largest sponsor of terrorism-- to heel. That opportunity has been squandered time and time again by diplomacy and by determinedly keeping US forces in a defensive role where they're free to take casualties but have to worry about court martials and demonization when they actually step over a line in fighting back against their attackers.
President Wilson and President Bush are in many ways fundamentally different men but they both share an idealistic belief in creating a better world. Unfortunately neither of them could understand that we cannot create a better world, only a better nation and when we do that, we contribute to the world as a whole. War is a means for subduing enemies who threaten us before they can become more grievous threats. The failure to subdue the Bolsheviks carried a terrible place and might have carried a more terrible one still. It is unknown what price will be paid for a failure to subdue a nuclear Iran.
Hundreds of men died in the frozen lands of Siberia and are today mostly forgotten. We remember the dead so that the living might remember.