"Someday this war will be over, and when it is I want to be sure that we're still the good guys."
Though I was born 16 years after its end World War 2 still cast a giant shadow on the world as I grew up.
Unrecalcitrant Nazis competed with agents of the Red Menace as the pop-culture villains du jour, and the supermarket tabloids that today thrill us with the latest exploits of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton then grimly warned that Adolf Hitler was alive and well, hidden in Argentina.
By the 1970s that great war had receded in popular memory and acquired a fuzzy warm nostalgic glow. In the uncertain grey world of Vietnam and Watergate it stood out as a time when Americans knew we were the good guys and agreed on what we were fighting for.
About that time Marvel Comics published a series chronicling adventures of Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, fighting side by side for the Allies in World War 2.
30 years later a scene from that comic book still sticks in my mind. The costumed heroes arrive in London at the height of the Battle of Britain and take an active part. The Sub-Mariner smashes through the cockpit of a Nazi plane and is about to toss the hapless pilot out to certain doom.
But Captain America stops him, telling the angry Atlantean in no uncertain terms "Someday this war will be over, and when it is I want to be sure that we're still the good guys."
I probably haven't gotten the quote word for word, for which I apologize to both its author, a writer named Roy Thomas, and the star-spangled hero who spoke it. However, I thank them both for the powers those words hold to this day.
The real world was never as simple, even in 1940, as the four-color newsprint world that Captain America inhabited, but we could be pretty sure in those years that we were the good guys.
Today sadly we cannot.
Maybe it's childish, but it's not hard to figure out what George W. Bush would have done in the Sub-Mariners place. No matter what Captain America said that pilot would have gone tumbling to his doom. Well, assuming that W didn't find some excuse to avoid the fighting altogether.
America has a history as bloody as any in the world. The United States is planted on the grave of an exterminated native people. The American and European enslavement of millions of Africans was as bloody as any genocide we think of today. Our own Civil War contains a catalog of horrors that paved the way for modern total war.
My point is not that America is morally worse than other countries, simply that we are not any better. America has no hereditary claim to being the good guy.
Human beings are rarely good or evil. It is human acts that are such, and even that is subjective.
George III certainly didn't regard George Washington a hero. There are plenty of southerners to this day who consider Abraham Lincoln a tyrant.
Unfortunately, there sits in the office of the President of the United States a simple man who thinks the world is simple. You're either with us or against us is not just a rhetorical device.
Gitmo, Abu Grahib, rendition, torture, perjury, subversion of justice, these are all acceptable. Because that United States is good, any action taken in its name is good.
After 9/11 the invasion of Afghanistan was inevitable. I supported it, not with enthusiasm, but as a grim necessity. I suspect that is the way my grandfathers and father felt 60 years earlier after Pearl Harbor. There was a job to be done.
Like any other nation, America is only good when it acts for good. Any claim to greatness we make is not in the power of our arms but in our words and deeds.
Where might we be today if we had not blundered pointlessly into Iraq, a bloody struggle in which our leaders have shed all our ideals because they claim it is necessary, though Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt in far darker times did not?
What if we had spent the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted in Iraq on rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan, a country that had not known real peace in many years? What might our image in the Middle East and the world be if we had been building hospitals and schools there, instead of dropping bombs on Baghdad?
Our one and only fair claim to greatness and to uniqueness is this: we set our ideals down on paper and then strove to live up to them. An uneven struggle certainly and one that continues to this day.
We are at our strongest when we stand by our ideals. Without them we are no different from any powerful country that threatens or invades another.
If we are to be great, we must be the good guys.
Too bad George Bush didn't read Captain America.