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Speak Up

By Russ Smith | Posted 2/1/2006

An extraordinary anti-war opinion was published last week, one that might actually have an impact on the continuous debate about the invasion of Iraq, and it wasn’t found on an excitable web site like the Daily Kos or the Huffington Post. Joel Stein’s Jan. 24 op-ed “Warriors and Wusses” was printed in the Los Angeles Times—the country’s fourth-largest daily newspaper—and was immediately condemned by conservatives and liberals alike.

Stein, to his credit, offered an honest opinion, one that wasn’t softened by the equivocations and caveats that are found in virtually every other article by a critic of President Bush and the war. The columnist, sort of a print version of Jon Stewart and heretofore known mostly for his comic takes on current events (first at Time magazine, and since last year for the Los Angeles Times), shocked his readers by chucking the usual shtick and lobbing a grenade at the U.S. military. What made the piece so unusual, and heretical, was that instead of excoriating Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld, Stein saved his most biting invective for the men and women who are actually fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“[B]laming the president is a little too easy,” Stein wrote. “The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not. An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying.”

This is the sort of opinion that isn’t even common in private cocktail-hour debates over the war; I can’t think of a single person with whom I’ve conversed in the past several years who has assigned any blame to the men and women who’ve volunteered to join the armed forces. There’s the suspicion, reading between the lines of liberal writers in the media, that many hope the United States is forced to withdraw unceremoniously from Iraq—the sooner the better—mostly because of hatred for the Bush administration. But the courage and bravery of the actual soldiers, often described as “working class” young adults who’ve been exploited, is never questioned. It’s a conversation-stopper.

Certainly, I don’t agree with Stein’s view. That he presumes to impose his own “morality” on other Americans is no less heinous than cultural zealots telling people how they should behave in their own bedrooms. There’s no draft today, unlike Vietnam—which is probably the main reason that the anti-war movement isn’t nearly as galvanized as a generation ago—and no one is forced to pursue a career in the potentially life-threatening military. As Stein says, “But when you volunteer for the U.S. Military, you pretty much know you’re not going to be fending off invasions from Mexico and Canada. So you’re willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism, for better or worse. Sometimes you get lucky and get to fight ethnic genocide in Kosovo, but other times it’s Vietnam.”

What’s perhaps most significant about Stein’s incendiary column is that it provides more proof that, contrary to the ravings of hysterical pundits and politicians, the First Amendment is thriving during the Bush presidency, and the Constitution isn’t being “shredded.” In fact, the L.A. Times appears to be playing up the controversy for all it’s worth in publicity, featuring a poll about the column on its web site. Predictably, as Editor and Publisher reported Jan. 25, the Times and Stein immediately received “hundreds of letters,” mostly negative, and probably subscription cancellations as well.

Tom Bevan, co-founder of the political web site Real Clear Politics, is one of the finest and rational conservative commentators today, but I disagree with his Jan. 27 assessment that Stein’s piece was “the kind of career-crippling column most writers dread” and that the Times’ “brand” has been damaged. In fact, in this current era when daily newspapers are in decline—both in circulation and influence—Stein’s column is probably a boon both to him and the Times. When an “old media” bulwark ignites such passion about an issue, that’s cause for internal celebration there.

Think what you will about Stein’s view on the war and soldiers, but it’s a welcome departure from the usual mush found on editorial pages. The Sun, a sister paper of the Times in the Tribune Co., would be smart to reprint Stein’s column and see what kind of debate takes place. If the sleepy Sun isn’t going to replace banished columnist Michael Olesker—not my favorite writer, but his views on national politics weren’t muted—there are cheap alternatives available from the Times, such as unapologetic Bush basher Jonathan Chait, who’d provide readers with more intellectual sustenance than the atrocious Cal Thomas and Ellen Goodman.

The Sun might laugh off the upcoming competition from the free daily Baltimore Examiner, but if it doesn’t offer more compelling opinions (and Peter Schmuck riffing about fellow sportswriter Rick Maese’s age isn’t going to cut it), the once-prestigious institution might find its circulation dipping below 200,000.

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