Tuesday, October 05, 2004

How to Die for a Mistake

If he wins the election, no doubt President John Kerry will utter many memorable words but so far his most famous words were spoken in 1971: “How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?” Kerry’s question, a product of anger, sorrow and loyalty, is the sine qua non of leadership. No leader wants to bear the responsibility for telling the people for whom he or she is responsible that their efforts are in vain, especially when those efforts involve the suffering and trauma of combat. Nowhere else in human existence are we asked to become un-human, to kill and destroy. To do this and then find out that it was nothing leaves a person devoid of their humanity with nothing of value to show for it. All that remains is the hole where humanity used to be.

Admitting mistakes involving armed aggression is probably the most difficult thing a society can do. It forces the society to confront its motives and values. And because aggression is normally considered a crime, no one wants to admit committing such an act without strong justification. Armed aggression is the most lethal action one society can take against another so it must always be justified. As John Kerry said in the 30 September debate,
“...[Y]ou have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.” (emphasis added)

(Note to George Bush: Check your dictionary before saying more about the “global test.” Or at least read Will Saletan’s and Juan Cole’s thoughts about it. Global doesn’t mean what you think.)

Simply put, use of force must always be legitimate; some great good must result from that exercise of power. Something must compensate for the humanity sacrificed in the cause. That’s why Kerry’s words were so powerful in 1971. When he spoke, the United States had over six years of active combat in Vietnam and was well into its second decade of military operations in that country. We had bombed, strafed, napalmed, poisoned, burned and killed. We were anything but human. Of course, we had our reasons but by 1971 the number of dead and wounded had reached the point where it seemed to have little purpose. John Kerry and the many Vietnam Veterans Against the War were the witnesses to both America’s lack of purpose and its cost.

As we approach the 2004 presidential election, America is again debating John Kerry’s question. Not because we are interested in history but rather because the United States is now asking its citizens to shed their humanity to kill and destroy in Iraq. As always, Americans trusted the president and other leaders when they said that invading Iraq was necessary to protect America. Now the nation is not so certain and wonders about the wisdom of our actions. But even John Kerry won’t call the War on Iraq a mistake. He knows that Americans are not ready to hear that message from a presidential candidate, so he walks a verbal tightrope in his criticism of the war.

My experience in Vietnam tells me that dying for a mistake is harder than dying a for a cause. At least when you believe in what you’re fighting for, you have some energy, some drive, some reason for the sacrifice you are making. You can confront the horror that you create while telling yourself that some good will emerge. The good compensates for the humanity you lose in the fighting. Without that motivation, that justification, your sacrifice is pointless. You kill and destroy for no reason. Nothing counterbalances the evil inherent in your action. To die in such a manner is tragic because your life is wasted. Surviving the mistake also brings its own pain as the veteran lives with the inhumanity of his or her actions but cannot balance the inhumanity with the good produced by those actions.

Dying for a mistake isn’t hard. You just have to follow a leader who doesn’t understand war or the need to honestly justify the use of force to his fellow countrymen. Americans will always answer their country’s call and will sacrifice willingly. A wise leader knows not to waste that sacrifice.