Former U.S. Senator Max Cleland, the Georgia Democrat who lost his right arm and both legs in the quagmire that was Vietnam, explained a few years ago that, “Within the soul of each Vietnam veteran there is probably something that says ‘Bad war, good soldier.’ Only now are Americans beginning to separate the war from the warrior.”
Cleland’s wise words need to be recalled on this Veterans Day, when it is more necessary than ever to separate a bad war from the warriors who are required to fight it.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is an unfolding disaster with such nightmarish consequences that is not merely easy, but necessary to be angry with those who are responsible. And Americans are angry. Overwhelming majorities of U.S. citizens now tell pollsters that they believe the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake, and a substantial proportion of them say that the continued occupation of that Middle East land is a fool’s mission.
It is appropriate to direct our anger at the man whose determination to wage a war of whim rather than necessity put hundreds of thousands of Americans in harm’s way. But it is not appropriate to blame those young men and women for following the direction of their commanders in a time of global uncertainty.
What is truly unfortunate is the attempt by political supporters of the man who is responsible for steering America into the quagmire with those who are stuck in it. Republicans have distributed noxious bumper stickers that declare, “Support the Troops and the President.”
To be fair, it is possible to support the troops and the president — if one chooses to believe that the war was necessary and that it continues to be necessary. But the number of Americans who entertain such beliefs is dwindling rapidly.
For those Americans who think George W. Bush has been wrong all along about Iraq, it is entirely appropriate — and entirely possible — to support the troops and oppose the president.
That’s what U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, did last summer when it was revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs did not have the resources to provide adequate care for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Murray, who had voted against authorizing President Bush to go to war, offered an amendment to address the shortfall of more than $1 billion. But her move was blocked by Senate Republicans who claimed that the money was not needed.
Murray kept the pressure up, and her concerns were echoed by veterans groups such as the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Disabled American Veterans. Richard Fuller, the legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans, told the Washington Post that the money problems were obvious to anyone visiting VA clinics and hospitals. “You could see it happening, clinics shutting down, appointments delayed,” Fuller explained. Joseph A. Violante, legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans, added a blunter assessment, charging that the administration was “shortchanging veterans.”
Finally, in the face of mounting pressure from a senator who had opposed the war and groups that were increasingly troubled about the treatment of its veterans, Senate Republicans relented and voted to provide the needed money.
U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, a leading conservative who is big on supporting the president but not so enthusiastic when it comes to supporting veterans, was forced to admit that, “We were in error. Sen. Murray was right.”
To her credit, Murray was gracious, saying of the Republicans: “It was not easy for them to eat crow on this. But as I’ve said so many times in the last few days on the floor of the Senate, this is not a Republican issue and this is not a Democratic issue; it is an American issue.”
Murray’s right. In the years to come, as more and more soldiers return from the nightmare that is Iraq, it will be vital for Americans of all political persuasions to recognize that a massive new commitment of federal resources is required to assure that the nightmare does not continue for the veterans of this awful conflict.