Thursday, September 02, 2004

War and Dissent, Part II

Now that the Swift Boat lies about John Kerry’s military service have given anti-Kerry veterans visibility and money, they are targeting his anti-war activities and statements he made to Congress in 1971. They want him to apologize for what he said and did. The anti-Kerry veterans believe that Kerry harmed American forces when he spoke out against the war. This veteran says that John Kerry should take credit for what he did as yet another service to his nation. In speaking against the war, John Kerry brought the truth home to America. Along with thousands of other veterans, he demonstrated that the war was harming American soldiers, not just the Vietnamese people and countryside. He came to his beliefs through the experience of war, a war that he found troubling and disturbing but nonetheless, a war in which he served with distinction. By his service he established his right to speak out.

No American needs to go to war in order to speak about it. That’s our right under the First Amendment. But going to war provides an entirely new perspective. Serving in combat made me realize just how horrible war is. The violence is bad enough (although I was fortunate to see far less violence than I had a right to expect). Even worse, is the loss of humanity, the callousness and indifference to life that is so necessary in order for one human to be willing to kill and destroy another. It’s a terrible price to pay. Under the circumstances some combatants lose control. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse is only the most recent in a litany of shameful acts by Americans in war: My Lai, No Gun Ri. Wounded Knee. These things happen in war. They are war’s brutal consequence.

Recognizing and understanding that Americans committed war crimes in combat does not accuse all soldiers of those crimes. Rather, it recognizes war for what it is and should be a wake up call to the country as to why war is never a simple, nor should it ever be a first, solution in a conflict. That’s why dissent is so important. Spirited, conscientious dissent is important in determining whether a conflict warrants war. Even as the war is underway, dissent is needed to ensure that the nation understands what it is doing and why. War is an evil that is only justified under extreme circumstances. A democratic society needs dissenters to remind the nation of what war will do to our soul.

That’s why I think Kerry’s anti-war statements were warranted and appropriate. I can read what he said and know that he wasn’t talking about me. I didn’t burn villages, torture prisoners or rape women but I know that these things happen. And I know that these things happened because of callous indifference that breeds so well in the extreme violence of war. John Kerry was right when he spoke of this cost which had been previously documented by fellow veterans’ accounts. The men who admitted to these acts were cleansing their own and the nation’s souls. They recognized what they had become and were now telling the nation about a consequence of the war.

John McCain has criticized the attacks on John Kerry’s military service but says he finds Kerry’s anti-war activities troubling, that Kerry is open to criticism for those actions. I agree. That’s part of his public record. But I believe that Kerry has nothing to apologize for. He spoke the truth and, in doing so, he served his country. He did not condemn all Vietnam veterans as war criminals but rather demonstrated his concern for them. “How do you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?” he asked. In 1971 John Kerry believed that the Vietnam War was a mistake, a conviction shared by most Americans and even the Nixon Administration which was trying to find a way to reduce American involvement. By 1971, Vietnam was a holding action and the country had no real justification for sending Americans (including this writer) to kill and destroy in Vietnam. We were just a holding action, saving face for a nation that was blindsided by its ideology.

Vietnam offers many lessons for America in the first decade of the new millennium. One is that we should understand the true nature of the our “enemies”, what motivates them and why. In doing so, we can be more effective in dealing with the threats they pose to our democratic society and can seek alternatives to war wherever possible. A second lesson is that war must have real meaning in order to justify its violence. I can fight for my country and deal with war’s brutality when I know and believe in the cause, when I know that war is the only way out. Vietnam had lost any meaning when I was called to serve and I have resented my nation for putting me in that situation ever since. I see the same lack of meaning in the Iraq war, a war that has shifting antecedents and has turned American GI’s from liberators to occupiers.

That’s why John Kerry’s anti-war activism was important in 1971. That’s why it does not disqualify him from serving as president. Just the opposite, I believe that John Kerry’s service to his nation as an anti-war activist demonstrates that he has the humanity necessary to be president in the post 9-11 world.

War and Dissent, Part I

As Republicans like to say, 9-11 changed the nation and Bush’s presidency. Indeed it did. Bush became president on that day. Until 9-11 his legitimacy was in question. On 9-11, America needed a president. We forgot about the stolen election and turned to our president for leadership. And, I will say, George Bush did well in the aftermath of 9-11. He helped the nation honor the dead and recognized the threat that terrorism posed to America and all societies. He had the world with him in that time of grief and anger.

And then he promptly led America into paranoia and fear. His characterization of international terrorism is such that Americans should “bear any burden, pay any price” (to borrow President Kennedy’s words) to defeat that evil force. Under his leadership America has become a fearful, angry giant lashing out at the world in a quest for safety and security. Bush’s doctrine of attacking other nations has left much death and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those piles of twisted metal and shattered concrete, the bodies friends and families on the street are as anguishing to Iraqi and Afghan survivors now as the ruins and death at the World Trade Center were to Americans on 9-11.

The 9-11 attacks, for all their horror, do not warrant a “war” nor does America need a “war president”. Those concepts are convenient constructs that give Bush unfettered authority to do whatever he wants and to deflect all criticism in the name of winning the war and securing our homeland. What the 9-11 attacks warrant is an aggressive policy of working with other nations to identify, track and disrupt terrorist cells and organizations. It made sense to attack the plotters and their hosts in Afghanistan tone alternative would have been to seek the plotters’ extradition but that lacked the drama, satisfaction and economic opportunities of military action). Effective action against al-Qaeda and its allies will sometimes require military force but this non-state terrorism is not easily or effectively deterred with conventional forces.

The US certainly did not need to invade and occupy Iraq to fight terrorism. Iraq is a sideshow in the war on terror because Iraq has little or nothing to do with the terrorists who have attacked America and other western nations. Iraq is a war Bush and his cronies wanted to fight. The 9-11 attacks gave them just the opportunity they needed. They hijacked Americans’ patriotism in pursuit of their own, not the national, interest. And now that they are mired in a shooting war, they rely on Americans’ unquestioning support of our military to shield them from all criticism. I call that Patriotic Abuse. The administration conflates loyalty to the nation and support for its ineffective and counterproductive policies. Questioning the policy means disloyalty.

That’s bullshit. There is no more fundamentally American value than the freedom to question actions taken in our name. This is especially true when our leaders attack and destroy other nations and their people. Sometimes, that kind of action is unavoidable. But Iraq was anything but unavoidable. The international community had done an effective job of defanging Saddam Hussein. He was no threat to America and not much of a threat to his region. He certainly did not possess the weaponry that justified the war. And even if it was a fine gesture to liberate Iraqis from his brutal regime, America has fallen well short of providing the security needed for a successful post war transition. Questioning unnecessary war is just one of the many benefits of American democracy. It is also essential if we are to keep that democracy. In these times, Americans should well remember Benjamin Franklin’s description of the government created by the newly written US Constitution: “A democracy, if you can keep it.”

Three years after 9-11, I think that the greatest threat to America is George Bush’s promise of endless war. War that will drain our economy, slowly bleed our military, tarnish America’s reputation in the world community, breed more hatred and distrust of America and destroy the open, democratic society that has been this nation’s unique contribution to the world. Why shouldn’t I question the politicians who are damaging this nation? How can I remain loyal to the idea of America and be silent?

National Insecurity

As Republicans gather in New York to celebrate George W. Bush, this is a good time to remember that three years after 9-11 America is no more secure than it was on that fateful day. We’ve had three years of “war on terror” but the forces and organizations that threaten America are alive and doing well. North Korea has increased its stockpile of nuclear weapons from two to eight since Bush took office. (And remember, he literally took the office.) Al-Qaeda and the Taleban have been rousted from Kabul but Afghanistan is still destabilized by warring militias. Al-Qaeda remains quite capable of striking in many parts of the world, including Iraq which was previously off limits to them. US forces are deeply mired in Iraq at the cost of about a dozen soldiers a week, over $200 billions and untold devastation in Iraqi cities and neighborhoods. At home, civil liberties are restricted to the point of threatening our open, democratic society. Three years of George Bush’s “steady leadership” has left America no more secure than on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Since that day George Bush and his cronies have terrorized Americans into a frenzy, a frenzy that generates unthinking support for grandiose and ineffective policies. The 9-11 attacks where a heinous crime that called for a strong response, no doubt about that. But Bush and company hijacked America’s fears to create an authoritarian regime that can act without restraint against other nations and organizations. And against Americans. America and the world suffer from Bush’s unthinking, misguided militarism. Thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead, their homes and neighborhoods are destroyed. Afghanis still suffer at the hands of warlords and civil strife. The very nations whose cooperation we need to deal with the international terrorism no longer trust America’s word or our motives.

Along with the human and economic losses, America lost its senses on 9-11. The horror of that day scared us so witless that we have allowed Bush and his cronies to squander this country’s good name in an illusory campaign for absolute security. This administration hoodwinked the nation into believing that military action is the only way to prevent another 9-11. That logic may have made some sense in Afghanistan but it’s wholly irrelevant to our current misadventure in Iraq. But questioning Bush’s illogic and his ineffective policies is labeled “unpatriotic” and “defeatist”. The strong leadership that will be celebrated by the Republicans this week is in reality, little more than a steady march to war to the exclusion of all other options. This single minded blindness dissipates America’s considerable moral and economic strength at a time when both could contribute much to the world.

One of the more dubious ideas that Bush has peddled to Americans is the need to attack our enemies “over there” before they attack us “over here”. This concept perverts legitimate self defense into a policy that wrecks havoc on other nations and their citizens. American weapons killed more Afghani civilians than al-Qaeda killed on 9-11. Iraqi civilian deaths easily exceed America’s 9-11 toll. The loss of homes and livelihoods is immense. In effect, Americans are convinced that it’s okay to attack and destroy other people and their homes in order to ensure that we are not ourselves attacked. What this policy fails to consider is that war is always fought in someone’s yard. I saw this in Vietnam as I patrolled roads and villages, as our artillery and bombs ripped the countryside apart. And I see it in Iraq as I watch the destruction wrought by American firepower. Most victims of our weaponry are not the ones who attacked us. They just happen to be in the way. But that’s okay, you see, we are doing this so that we can be safe. The bloody corpse of your son, the smoking rubble of your home, well, it’s for America's safety. Can anything be more antithetical to American tradition and values?

“We are all Americans now” wrote one French journalist on 9-11. On that day the world saw America as it had never been seen before and joined us in our sorrow and anger. But in the three years since that day George Bush squandered the opportunity to harness that spirit of solidarity and cooperation. His deceitful, arrogant and cynical view of the world has rendered America weaker, not stronger. When I see what this man has done in my name, I am embarrassed to be an American.