The Good War | Opinion

War was never a faraway thing for my family. As a child, I remember the morning ritual: my father swinging his body to the side of his bed so he could attach a prosthesis. I hated seeing the stump that was what remained of his leg. The rest was left behind on a battlefield in Okinawa in May 1945. Decades later, the war was still coming home to our family.

Yet for us World War II was still the "good war." There was plenty to back that up: the horror of Nazism and the Holocaust, the clarity of the Allied cause, the nobility of our wartime leaders, the sense of unity on the home front. It all fitted together for our family and for the vast majority of Americans. And then new wars came and we never had the same feeling again. Until, perhaps, now.

What has happened in Ukraine just in the last two months has started to reshape the American perception of war. It has provided us the closest analogue to the World War II experience that gave meaning and pride to our forebears. And the possibility of feeling unequivocally supportive of our nation's actions might just affect not only our national psyche, but our politics as well.

To understand how profound a change this may be, let's consider just how long it's been since we felt this way. The American wars after World War II elicited fear, anger and pain. Korea would end in a stalemate. Vietnam would end in defeat. For the first time in our history, a powerful anti-war movement developed during the Vietnam years. The draft was regarded not with fervent patriotism but with profound dread by millions of American families. By 1968, a full seven years before its end, more Americans disapproved of the war than supported it.

In 1970, my brother Steven was draft age and finishing college. At family dinners, the worry hung thick in the air. The generational difference was stark as well. My dad was a decorated war hero, a man profoundly proud that he had volunteered after Pearl Harbor. But for my mom and my brother and so many others in my family, there was no resemblance between Vietnam and that "good war" my dad served in. There was no good reason to fight and die. My mom was determined that Steven, her firstborn child, would not experience what her husband had. A medical problem eventually settled the issue and my brother stayed home. But for years we felt he might be snatched away at any moment.

It was never hard for me to understand the Vietnam Syndrome that pervaded American politics after the fall of Saigon in 1975. It seemed fully justified, but it wasn't really something to celebrate. Yes, our nation learned a good lesson too late: to avoid the questionable interventions and the "foreign entanglements" George Washington warned of. But at the same time, we started to lose a source of pride that was part of our self-definition.

The war in Afghanistan started with the clearest rationale since World War II: we were attacked. I was never a militarist, but as a New Yorker the 9/11 attack couldn't have been more personal. I felt the grief of the families. I smelled the acrid smoke that hung over New York City for weeks after. It demanded a response. And at first, the war seemed to make sense. There seemed to be meaningful victories. Until there weren't anymore. A decade and a half passed. Already by 2014, more Americans felt the war had been in vain than not. The specter of noble young American soldiers dead, for reasons that weren't clear enough, haunted us again.

A bullet riddled Ukrainian flag
A bullet riddled Ukrainian national flag, on May 4, 2022, in Malyn, Ukraine. Alexey Furman/Getty Images

Nothing was more reminiscent of Vietnam than the Iraq War. Started under false pretenses and continually justified by new lies, the American presence in Iraq lost popular support in just two short years. By 2005, the American public no longer believed.

The pattern was clear for half a century. But now a new reality has emerged. All the ingredients are there: an unjustified attack, a shocking level of suffering, a noble resistance, an admirable leader. And more than any war in history, the humanity of it all has been brought home by graphic and instantaneous images.

This time, America has not been an object of scorn or protest, at home or abroad. The most substantial international coalition in decades has been created and led by the U.S. There are daily examples of nations agreeing to donate more arms or shoulder more economic burdens. There are actual battlefield victories, something so hard to discern in recent wars.

Yes, all this is preliminary, and it may change. Yes, this is a different experience because it isn't our boots on the ground. But that doesn't negate the surge of unity and even a newfound hint of pride developing in our country. Fully 73 percent of Americans in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll supported a deep U.S. commitment to arming Ukraine. The approval for the U.S. commitment to arming Ukraine cuts across party lines. In a time of division, there is striking commonality among Americans on this issue.

When Americans feel proud again about our place in the world, the prospect arises of a calming effect on our national dialogue. The more secure we feel about this part of our identity, the more chance we can start to find a sense of common purpose on other matters. It's clear our psyche was bruised by the way we left Afghanistan last year, but the forceful and coherent way we are helping Ukraine may restore some of our faith and re-energize our sense of our own nationhood.

Maybe this is our "good war." And maybe it will start to make us feel good about ourselves. If so, this could be a moment of definition for a country that has perceived itself to be adrift, one of those historical dividing lines when things actually start to change.

Bill de Blasio served as the 109th mayor of New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.