Endurance: A lesson from generations of American patriots for Illinoisans today

John Tillman

John Tillman is one of the nation's most prominent leaders of a state-based think tank.

John Tillman
May 16, 2016

Endurance: A lesson from generations of American patriots for Illinoisans today

Those fighting in Springfield for a better future for Illinois should look to past generations of Americans who stayed the course through long and difficult battles for liberty.

Illinois political chronicler Rich Miller’s recent reference to World War I as a means to better understand Illinois’ contemporary budget gridlock is a reminder that history is only properly used when it is properly understood.

Unfortunately, the lessons of WWI are often improperly applied and incorrectly assessed. The centenary of the American Expeditionary Forces of 1917-1918 is fast approaching, bringing with it an obligation to honor and respect the sacrifices of those fighting men – including the sacrifices of the 33rd “Prairie” Division, comprised largely of Illinoisans, who endured so much for liberty on the Western Front. And that is the important point: They did fight for liberty, and they understood liberty was their cause.

Far from a futile and pointless fight, World War I for America was a just and noble cause. The United States had ample reason to go to war, provoked by a vicious campaign of submarine warfare in the Atlantic, and German attempts to spark war between Mexico and the United States. The patriotism that sent millions of volunteers and draftees into the fight highlights what that generation of Americans understood clearly. Those Americans were not deluded by patriotic fervor; they were citizens of a democratic republic who willingly defended liberty with their eyes wide open.

In that light, to draw a parallel between that war and the present-day political struggles here in Illinois presents two imperatives.

The first imperative, of course, is to understand fully that any parallel between ordinary politics and the nightmare of war is tenuous and imperfect. The politician, after all, goes to bed safe and sound every evening – a luxury the soldier in combat does not enjoy.

The second imperative is to realize that the real parallel, inasmuch as there is one, is between those who understood the virtue and valor of fighting for a just cause – both then and now. The Illinois men of the famous “Prairie Division” that hammered the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne – still among the largest battles ever fought by the United States Army – did not go to the Western Front to seek a compromise. The men and women who want to hold the line at the state Capitol in Springfield today may rightly claim to act in a similar spirit.

Instead of WWI, perhaps a more fitting parallel to draw is between today’s political struggles in Springfield and the American Revolution. Not unlike the seemingly interminable wrangling that characterizes Illinois politics, that struggle dragged on for eight long years – and most of it was characterized by British success. The American patriots did not have a long record of battlefield successes to their name: From Charleston, to New York, to Savannah, to Philadelphia and beyond, it was the King’s forces who generally dominated the fields on which they chose to fight.

The great achievement of General George Washington and the Continental Army was not that they won, but that they survived – and returned to fight again and again. Washington and his soldiers understood one thing the British did not: It did not necessarily matter whether they won every single battle – so long as there was a force in being to fight the next one. In the end, it did not matter that the roster of British victories outnumbered the American ones. All that mattered was that on the last battlefield, in the last fight, it was the patriots who prevailed. The lesson was to endure – and in enduring, to win.

It is a lesson that carried the day at Yorktown – and it is a lesson that will carry the day in Springfield.

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