HONOLULU - Later this week, we pass two historic milestones. On Wednesday, the American military mission in Iraq officially ends - the last combat brigade left earlier this month - or at least is transformed principally from warmaking to peacekeeping. On Thursday, we mark the 65th anniversary of the official end of World War II.
But the end of American combat in the Persian Gulf - which President Obama has warned will not bring "the end of American sacrifice in Iraq" - does not possess the finality of the end of World War II, nor the clarity.
Of course, clarity is in the eyes of the beholder. While Winston Churchill and Harry Truman foresaw the beginning of a bitter Cold War, hardly anyone in Times Square or on the deck of the USS Missouri did.
For it was on the deck of "Mighty Mo" that the greatest conflict in the history of the world ended. The peace signed there in Tokyo Bay signaled the conclusion of a struggle whose cost ran, as University of North Carolina historian Gerhard Weinberg put it, to an "absolutely unprecedented magnitude. "
There will be no Missouri moment at the end of the Iraq war, nor even the false clarity that followed the surrender of the Japanese. There is no Pax Americana in the Middle East or anywhere else.
World War II veterans now are dying at a rate of about 1,100 a day. Soon, men and women who fought or remembered that war will be as rare as veterans of World War I were as the first Gulf War ended. Before long, the meaning of the Missouri, and what happened there, will be part of our history but no longer part of our memory.
It is worthwhile, in our period of war and woe, to remember the Missouri for the breathtaking sweep of history that ended, and for the frightening history that began, there. That Missouri moment, which began when the defeated Japanese signed for peace, was one of those few discernible boundaries in history.
Before representatives of the warring powers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur uttered this remarkable paragraph:
"It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past - a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice."
Sixty-five years later, the USS Missouri sits in Pearl Harbor. It is museum and monument both. If you walk around the ship, you will see tacked on the bulletin boards orders from its mission in Operation Desert Storm, making it perhaps the only bridge - besides former President George H.W. Bush - between World War II and the conflicts in the Persian Gulf.
This year has had many important 65th anniversaries, including the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt (April 12) and Adolf Hitler (April 30), V-E Day (May 8), the explosion of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9), and V-J Day (Aug. 15).
The temptation is to view those events and that time as a simpler, more clear-eyed era. That temptation is reinforced when we compare the way the war in Iraq is winding down, with a few muted speeches and quiet troop transfers, with the way World War II ended, with signing pens on the deck of a mighty battleship in the harbor of a conquered empire.
But that's a dangerous temptation. MacArthur left the peace table only to find himself in a war in Korea in five years. The hot war of 1939 to 1945 was followed by a Cold War that lasted from 1945 to 1989.
The struggle against Hitler and Tojo was merely the semifinal of a broader, more complex conflict between Communism and the West that preoccupied our foreign policy and warped our domestic life for a generation. That prospect was foreseen but for the most part foresworn in 1945.
So while there is no Missouri moment this week in Iraq, let us be grateful, not regretful, that in 2010 there are no illusions, either.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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