Martial Flaw

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SEPTEMBER 12, 2005

Martial Flaw

From the day Cindy Sheehan, mother of a fallen American soldier,
began her vigil in Crawford, Texas, President Bush left the job of
attacking her to his henchmen in the Republican Party and his
sycophants in the press. Instead, Bush has largely confined himself
to one modest, respectful response: that Sheehan's opposition to
the war in Iraq is a relatively lonely one within the military
community. "I met with a lot of families," Bush explained at a late
August press conference. "She doesn't represent the view of a lot of
the families I have met with."Bush may be right about that. Sheehan's appearance on the national
scene doesn't prove that most military families oppose the war any
more than it proves that immediately withdrawing soldiers, the
policy she has advocated, is the one the United States should now
pursue. But Sheehan's value isn't as a barometer of public opinion
or as a source of foreign policy wisdom. It's as proof of one very
simple point: that a person can criticize the war and still support
the troops.

If that idea seems self-evident, then you haven't paid much
attention to politics these past few years. Whenever Bush and his
allies have faced rising opposition to some element of the Iraq
war, they've tried to shut down the argument by suggesting that
their critics are undermining the morale and safety of U.S. troops
abroad--in effect, using American soldiers as human shields in a
p.r. war. They did so most famously, and offensively, at the 2004
Republican National Convention, when an unhinged Zell Miller, the
ostensibly Democratic senator from Georgia, accused Democrats of
slandering the soldiers. "Democratic leaders see America as an
occupier, not a liberator," Miller said. "And nothing makes this
Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather
than liberators." Republicans and their supporters launched similar
rhetorical broadsides after rising insurgency activity in 2004
(when Representative Rob Portman said that criticizing Bush's
leadership was "demoralizing" to the troops), after revelations
this year about prisoner abuse in military detention facilities
(when Deborah Pryce, another House Republican, attacked Democrats
for "jumping at any chance to point the finger at our own troops"),
and after a recent series of setbacks (when Oliver North lashed out
at the "old, anti- military, 'Blame America First' crowd" for
dwelling on them).

These arguments have resonated because many Americans believe that
the Democratic Party, or at least its more left-leaning elements,
is hostile toward the military. And they believe this because, not
that long ago, it was at least partly true. During the Vietnam era,
the left frequently attacked the nation's soldiers as well as its
political leaders, calling them baby-killers and ostracizing them
upon their return home. And, starting in the 1970s, many prominent
Democrats called for reduced defense spending, solidifying the
impression that they wanted to weaken the military as an
institution.

But nobody in the respectable left is calling American soldiers
baby-killers anymore--this, despite the fact that thousands of
Iraqi civilians, many of them children, have in fact died because
of the war. During the prison abuse scandal, the left directed its
anger over the torture and humiliation of detainees squarely at the
policymakers who allowed it to happen, not the frontline soldiers
who carried it out. In Washington, the split between the military
and Democrats flared up briefly in the early '90s, when President
Clinton proposed allowing gays to serve openly in the Armed Forces.
But, lately, when Democrats have been talking about military
issues, it has been to castigate the president for not deploying
more manpower and better equipment to Iraq--in effect, for doing to
the military what critics said the Democrats were trying to do back
in the 1980s.

Have Democrats just become more politically savvy? In some cases,
perhaps. The constant proclamations of patriotism--like the loud
"U.S.A." chants at last year's Democratic National Convention in
Boston--can have a forced, obviously self-conscious quality about
them. But some of the change is real. During the 1960s and early
'70s, the military stood for all of the values--conformity to
prevailing social attitudes, blind obedience to authority, et
cetera--against which the left was staging a full-scale social
revolution. That's a big reason why it became the object of such
ire. Today's culture wars, which are largely about sex, religion,
and the intersection of the two, simply haven't provoked the same
kind of widespread upheaval. And, however contrived patriotism by
the Democrats may seem, the fact remains that many prominent
Democrats are decorated war heroes who convincingly speak the
language of honor and who seem genuinely dismayed that the
administration left U.S. troops so obviously unprepared for the
task at hand.

That these shifts haven't registered fully in the national psyche is
testimony, in part, to just how deep a scar the left's past contempt
for the military created. It is also testimony to the way Bush and
his allies have cleverly used the cultural distance between red and
blue America to reinforce perceptions of liberal sentiment about
American soldiers. But that's why people like Sheehan are so
important. Critics can truthfully say that she doesn't understand
foreign policy, that she hangs out with radicals, and that she
espouses extremist views herself. But the one thing they cannot
plausibly say is that she has contempt for American soldiers.

Indeed, the basic rationale for her appeal is to get the troops out
of harm's way--to keep them from dying and to spare their families
from grieving. And she's not the only one talking that way. Quite
apart from the surprisingly strong candidacy of Paul Hackett, an
Iraqi veteran who opposed the war and nearly won an Ohio
congressional election last month, reports from the front lines
suggest many soldiers have started expressing their own misgivings
about the war's rationale, execution, and feasibility. Noting the
difficulty of fighting an insurgency with strong civilian support,
one Marine quoted in a recent story by KnightRidder's Tom Lasseter
asked, "Why do I feel like I'm in a f------ Vietnam movie?" If our
soldiers are asking these kinds of questions themselves, surely
they don't mind if we keep asking them, too.

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