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. Like a lot of the veterans of World War II, he understands that there are times when it makes sense to fight, just as there are times when it makes sense to bring the troops home.
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.”