Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
–Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“The Charge of the Light Brigade”
(in the Crimean War)
Thanks to the most crudely partisan decision in the history of the Supreme Court, the nation has been given a President of painfully limited wisdom and compassion and lacking any sense of the nation’s true greatness. Appearing to enjoy his role as Commander in Chief of the armed forces above all other functions of his office, and unchecked by a seemingly timid Congress, a compliant Supreme Court, a largely subservient press and a corrupt corporate plutocracy, George W. Bush has set the nation on a course for one-man rule.
He treads carelessly on the Bill of Rights, the United Nations and international law while creating a costly but largely useless new federal bureaucracy loosely called “Homeland Security.” Meanwhile, such fundamental building blocks of national security as full employment and a strong labor movement are of no concern. The nearly $1.5 trillion tax giveaway, largely for the further enrichment of those already rich, will have to be made up by cutting government services and shifting a larger share of the tax burden to workers and the elderly. This President and his advisers know well how to get us involved in imperial crusades abroad while pillaging the ordinary American at home. The same families who are exploited by a rich man’s government find their sons and daughters being called to war, as they were in Vietnam–but not the sons of the rich and well connected. (Let me note that the son of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson is now on duty in the Persian Gulf. He did not use his obvious political connections to avoid military service, nor did his father seek exemptions for his son. That goes well with me, with my fellow South Dakotans and with every fair-minded American.)
The invasion of Iraq and other costly wars now being planned in secret are fattening the ever-growing military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned in his great farewell address. War profits are booming, as is the case in all wars. While young Americans die, profits go up. But our economy is not booming, and our stock market is not booming. Our wages and incomes are not booming. While waging a war against Iraq, the Bush Administration is waging another war against the well-being of America.
Following the 9/11 tragedy at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the entire world was united in sympathy and support for America. But thanks to the arrogant unilateralism, the bullying and the clumsy, unimaginative diplomacy of Washington, Bush converted a world of support into a world united against us, with the exception of Tony Blair and one or two others. My fellow South Dakotan, Tom Daschle, the US Senate Democratic leader, has well described the collapse of American diplomacy during the Bush Administration. For this he has been savaged by the Bush propaganda machine. For their part, the House of Representatives has censured the French by changing the name of french fries on the house dining room menu to freedom fries. Does this mean our almost sacred Statue of Liberty–a gift from France–will now have to be demolished? And will we have to give up the French kiss? What a cruel blow to romance.
During his presidential campaign Bush cried, “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” As one critic put it, “He’s got that right. He’s united the entire world against him.” In his brusque, go-it-alone approach to Congress, the UN and countless nations big and small, Bush seemed to be saying, “Go with us if you will, but we’re going to war with a small desert kingdom that has done us no harm, whether you like it or not.” This is a good line for the macho business. But it flies in the face of Jefferson’s phrase, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” As I have watched America’s moral and political standing in the world fade as the globe’s inhabitants view the senseless and immoral bombing of ancient, historic Baghdad, I think often of another Jefferson observation during an earlier bad time in the nation’s history: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
The President frequently confides to individuals and friendly audiences that he is guided by God’s hand. But if God guided him into an invasion of Iraq, He sent a different message to the Pope, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the mainline Protestant National Council of Churches and many distinguished rabbis–all of whom believe the invasion and bombardment of Iraq is against God’s will. In all due respect, I suspect that Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice–and other sideline warriors–are the gods (or goddesses) reaching the ear of our President.
As a World War II bomber pilot, I was always troubled by the title of a then-popular book, God Is My Co-pilot. My co-pilot was Bill Rounds of Wichita, Kansas, who was anything but godly, but he was a skillful pilot, and he helped me bring our B-24 Liberator through thirty-five combat missions over the most heavily defended targets in Europe. I give thanks to God for our survival, but somehow I could never quite picture God sitting at the controls of a bomber or squinting through a bombsight deciding which of his creatures should survive and which should die. It did not simplify matters theologically when Sam Adams, my navigator–and easily the godliest man on my ten-member crew–was killed in action early in the war. He was planning to become a clergyman at war’s end.
Of course, my dear mother went to her grave believing that her prayers brought her son safely home. Maybe they did. But how could I explain that to the mother of my close friend, Eddie Kendall, who prayed with equal fervor for her son’s safe return? Eddie was torn in half by a blast of shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge–dead at age 19, during the opening days of the battle–the best baseball player and pheasant hunter I knew.
I most certainly do not see God at work in the slaughter and destruction now unfolding in Iraq or in the war plans now being developed for additional American invasions of other lands. The hand of the Devil? Perhaps. But how can I suggest that a fellow Methodist with a good Methodist wife is getting guidance from the Devil? I don’t want to get too self-righteous about all of this. After all, I have passed the 80 mark, so I don’t want to set the bar of acceptable behavior too high lest I fail to meet the standard for a passing grade on Judgment Day. I’ve already got a long list of strikes against me. So President Bush, forgive me if I’ve been too tough on you. But I must tell you, Mr. President, you are the greatest threat to American troops. Only you can put our young people in harm’s way in a needless war. Only you can weaken America’s good name and influence in world affairs.
We hear much talk these days, as we did during the Vietnam War, of “supporting our troops.” Like most Americans, I have always supported our troops, and I have always believed we had the best fighting forces in the world–with the possible exception of the Vietnamese, who were fortified by their hunger for national independence, whereas we placed our troops in the impossible position of opposing an independent Vietnam, albeit a Communist one. But I believed then as I do now that the best way to support our troops is to avoid sending them on mistaken military campaigns that needlessly endanger their lives and limbs. That is what went on in Vietnam for nearly thirty years–first as we financed the French in their failing effort to regain control of their colonial empire in Southeast Asia, 1946-54, and then for the next twenty years as we sought unsuccessfully to stop the Vietnamese independence struggle led by Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap–two great men whom we should have accepted as the legitimate leaders of Vietnam at the end of World War II. I should add that Ho and his men were our allies against the Japanese in World War II. Some of my fellow pilots who were shot down by Japanese gunners over Vietnam were brought safely back to American lines by Ho’s guerrilla forces.
During the long years of my opposition to that war, including a presidential campaign dedicated to ending the American involvement, I said in a moment of disgust: “I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars in which young men do the dying.” That terrible American blunder, in which 58,000 of our bravest young men died, and many times that number were crippled physically or psychologically, also cost the lives of some 2 million Vietnamese as well as a similar number of Cambodians and Laotians, in addition to laying waste most of Indochina–its villages, fields, trees and waterways; its schools, churches, markets and hospitals.
I had thought after that horrible tragedy–sold to the American people by our policy-makers as a mission of freedom and mercy–that we never again would carry out a needless, ill-conceived invasion of another country that had done us no harm and posed no threat to our security. I was wrong in that assumption.
The President and his team, building on the trauma of 9/11, have falsely linked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to that tragedy and then falsely built him up as a deadly threat to America and to world peace. These falsehoods are rejected by the UN and nearly all of the world’s people. We will, of course, win the war with Iraq. But what of the question raised in the Bible that both George Bush and I read: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul,” or the soul of his nation?
It has been argued that the Iraqi leader is hiding a few weapons of mass destruction, which we and eight other countries have long held. But can it be assumed that he would insure his incineration by attacking the United States? Can it be assumed that if we are to save ourselves we must strike Iraq before Iraq strikes us? This same reasoning was frequently employed during the half-century of cold war by hotheads recommending that we atomize the Soviet Union and China before they atomize us. Courtesy of The New Yorker, we are reminded of Tolstoy’s observation: “What an immense mass of evil must result…from allowing men to assume the right of anticipating what may happen.” Or again, consider the words of Lord Stanmore, who concluded after the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade that it was “undertaken to resist an attack that was never threatened and probably never contemplated.” The symphony of falsehood orchestrated by the Bush team has been de-vised to defeat an Iraqi onslaught that “was never threatened and probably never comtemplated.”
I’m grateful to The Nation, as I was to Harper’s, for giving me opportunities to write about these matters. Major newspapers, especially the Washington Post, haven’t been nearly as receptive.
The destruction of Baghdad has a special poignancy for many of us. In my fourth-grade geography class under a superb teacher, Miss Wagner, I was first introduced to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the palm trees and dates, the kayaks plying the rivers, camel caravans and desert oases, the Arabian Nights, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (my first movie), the ancient city of Baghdad, Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent. This was the first class in elementary school that fired my imagination. Those wondrous images have stayed with me for more than seventy years. And it now troubles me to hear of America’s bombs, missiles and military machines ravishing the cradle of civilization.
But in God’s good time, perhaps this most ancient of civilizations can be redeemed. My prayer is that most of our soldiers and most of the long-suffering people of Iraq will survive this war after it has joined the historical march of folly that is man’s inhumanity to man.