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Listening to a Veteran | The Nation

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Listening to a Veteran

Next week, one of the greatest war heroes to ever serve in Congress will return to Washington to discuss how the U.S. should extract itself from the quagmire in Iraq.

Former Sen. George McGovern will address members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Already, conservatives are accusing the Democrats in the House and Senate of being "McGovernite" liberals because some members of the House caucus will meet with the South Dakotan.

Let's hope the conservatives are right - because if this Congress wants to know about issues of war and peace, they should start listening to veterans. And McGovern is one of America's wisest old soldiers.

McGovern never made much of his war record when he served in the U.S. House and Senate from the 1950s to the 1980s, nor when he sought the presidency in 1972. Like many veterans, he was cautious about separating his service from that of the millions of other Americans who beat back Hitler and the fascists in World War II.

As a result, most Americans are probably still unaware of the fact that, as a 19-year-old college sophomore, McGovern volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Force immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He ended up with one of the most dangerous missions of the war: piloting a B-24 Liberator bomber. He flew 35 missions over enemy territory from bases in North Africa and Italy at a time when flight crews knew that their chances of making it back were often slim.

McGovern got his crew through the war alive and won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. Decades later, historian Stephen Ambrose would write about that service in his epic book, "The Wild Blue."

Recalling his support for McGovern's 1972 presidential candidacy, Ambrose wrote, "I felt at the time of the election that he should have pressed the issue of his war record a bit more. For whatever reasons, he chose not to. But yes, I would like the American people to know more about what he did during the war. I hope this will foster, not so much McGovern's appeal to a wider audience, but the understanding that you don't necessarily have to be a hawk to be patriotic. McGovern is one of the greatest patriots I know, and his anti-war stance doesn't make him any less of one."

Those words remain true on this Veterans Day. The crisis of this moment in history is that those who know about war and peace, about when to fight and when to use diplomacy, have not been listened to by the Bush administration. And that refusal to take the wise counsel of veterans has cost this country dearly.

Thousands of young American men and women have been killed in Iraq since Gen. Wesley Clark and other military men warned against invading that country. Hundreds of young American men and women have died in Iraq since one of the most decorated veterans in Congress, Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha, said a year ago that it was time to start bringing the troops home.

The best way to honor those who have fought to protect the U.S. on this or any Veterans Day is to listen to the veterans.

Members of Congress will have an opportunity to do so on Tuesday when McGovern comes to Washington. The decorated World War II veteran will come with a plan to extract the U.S. from the mess in Iraq quickly, safely and honorably. It is outlined in his new book (written with Wiliam Polk), "Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now," and it comes down to a simple fact: "The best way to reduce this insurgency is to get the American forces out of there. That's what's driving this insurgency."

McGovern's book calls for a new approach, one that would center on removing U.S. and foreign troops and establishing a transitional force made up of Muslims from the region to police the country.

"I've talked with a lot of senior officers - generals and admirals - in preparation for this book that say this war can't be won, that the problems now are not military problems," explains McGovern.

The answer is a political one. Congress must act. And it should start by listening to a veteran.

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