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Political Animal

The Trap

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/9/2006

Last week I had the chance to interview an author who, with his own money and on his own initiative, flew to Iraq to write about the soldiers on the ground there. The author is a historian, his father was active-duty military, and he has a long family history of relatives who served in wars such as the ones the U.S. has waged in Korea and Vietnam, and World Wars I and II.

Not being of the military persuasion himself, he had dedicated much of his writing career to telling the tales of the people who served in these times of stress. Soldiers, sailors, spies, and Marines--each service faces different challenges in different wars. And with the advent of new technology, every generationís version of a fighting man or woman has to learn to cope with new things. In Prodigal Soldiers, James Kitfieldís book about the retooling of the all-volunteer military in the years between Vietnam and the first Gulf War, one of the Navy pilots about to launch off an aircraft carrier deck into the darkness of the nighttime Baghdad sky says, "Goddamn, sir. I sure hope this stealth shit works."

If thereís one thing that hasnít changed over the years, however, it is the political environment back home surrounding a failed foreign policy experiment by an overzealous administration. In the late 1960s and early í70s, it was Vietnam, and it cost Lyndon Johnson his popularity and eventually his presidency. It would be three presidential terms later before the United States would finally pull out of the political miasma of the Far East.

Now here we are again, in an even more deadly and more sectarian part of the world, shoved into a war of convenience by a president who had hoped to invade long before Sept. 11 and simply needed some sort of justification to do so. Without a clear-cut global enemy like communism, conservative Republicans had no political hammer to wield in asserting their belief in themselves as "the daddy party," and so were getting hammered in peacetime by domestic-issues president Bill Clinton.

Under Karl Roveís stewardship, and thanks to the national tragedy that was Sept. 11, George W. Bush, a man who disappeared from his own stateside military service during Vietnam, was transformed into some heroic commander in chief leading a "global war on terror." Conveniently, this phraseology allowed the Right to not only claim Bushís mantle as a wartime president with all the powers it entails, but also to create an open-ended conflict whose definition could only be changed by those who created it. We are at war as long as they say we are at war.

This also allows the hard-core Right to lay claim to a long and useful syllogism that we first saw in the Vietnam years. The president is the commander in chief, who leads the troops, who fight in the war, who protect freedom; therefore, the president is the chief protector of freedom. If you are against one, you are against all. This chain is the trap.

The fact is, it is possible to oppose a president without opposing the troops. It is possible to object to the mission without opposing the troops. And it is possible to believe in freedom while disagreeing with the mission those troops have been sent to conduct. But simple logic and common sense often are not either simple or common in this day and age.

Liberals, in the heat of their dissent to this president and his failed policies, often find it easy to fall into the trap. Mistakes and malfeasance by individuals or units in the military often help. Let us recall that Lynndie England is not the face of the Iraq policy--sheís an individual who got caught up in a policy articulated by lawyers like Albert Gonzales, now our attorney general, and former Justice Department official John Yoo, and administrated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In the recent Hamdan decision handed down by the Supreme Court, Rumsfeld was all but in name cited as a war criminal for violations of the Geneva Conventions.

But remember that soldiers are tools--they are the physical arm of an administrationís policy, and as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, "war is the continuation of politics by other means."

The author I spoke to last week simply wished to tell the stories of the men on the ground, the people our government hires and trains to go out and, under our official imprimatur, take the lives of others. These people come from all walks of life, with their loyalties to each other and their country; itís as simple as that. Their stories have been told in books from A Bridge Too Far and The Longest Day in World War II, to Platoon Leader and We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young in Vietnam. Every generation that goes to war needs its tales told, and not just political screeds, but stories of the people who hold the guns and see the dying.

Itís a mistake to aim our fire at those who would tell those stories. And itís also a mistake to fall into the trap set carefully by those who would use the lives of those military men and women to advance a policy built on a sand castle of lies.

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