Richard Reeves

Support Our Troops, Not Our President

LOS ANGELES -- President Bush and his bodyguards, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, have had a busy week denouncing critics of the war as "irresponsible ... reprehensible ... dishonest ... hypocritical." The idea behind that polysyllabic barrage is that not supporting our only president and the troops he has sent into harm's way in Iraq is a monstrous lack of patriotism.

What has set loose Washington's dogs of war this time is any suggestion that the American people and Congress were deceived by pre-war intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and imminent threats from a small country far away. We were deceived and manipulated, but that is really yesterday's story, a story that actually defines wars through the centuries.

There is no doubt in my mind that we were lied to, as some of us wrote or said before the war. So what? The problem now is getting out. We have lost, as students of history knew we would before we began. We are simply repeating 19th-century British history, and the ending will be the same. No amount of good intentions, democracy, bravery, technological superiority and torture can change the fact that the people we are fighting or trying to save have been there for thousands of years -- and they will still be there after we go back where we came from. The only question on the table is when we decide to get out.

Sincere and caring readers send me hometown newspaper stories about the courage, the idealism and the decency of the young men and women wearing our uniform in Iraq. I am always moved. I am always saddened. They are risking their lives for nothing, except love and loyalty to their mates, the men and women fighting next to them -- in the end that is why soldiers fight. They fight out of loyalty to each other, not loyalty to their leaders or to abstract ideas, wonderful ideas written out in our Constitution more than 200 years ago, or in the Bible and other tracts written by geniuses, saints and sinners, too.

Support our troops? I bleed for them. Many, many lives will be ruined because these young men and women are doing their duty. They will come home to be called "torturers," as Vietnam vets were called "baby killers." Civilians are afraid of fellows trained to kill, to survive by killing them before they kill you.

This is not an American phenomenon. It is universal. The great Vietnamese novel of what they call the American war, Bao Ninh's "Sorrow of War," is essentially about the isolation of the warriors who came back to Hanoi after the Americans left their country in 1975. They were called heroes, but civilians wanted nothing to do with men who had been in the jungle for 10 years, living by the primitive rules of war, kill or be killed. The recent American best-seller "The Dante Club" tells the story of disoriented Union veterans of the Civil War, who wandered streets and were tied to hospital beds, still wearing their uniforms, because there was no longer a place for them in peaceful, civilian life.

Even the "Greatest Generation," the heroes of World War II, the beneficiaries of the GI Bill and other extraordinary national programs, came home to a nation suspicious of their experiences. There is a reason men who see combat rarely talk about it. The GI Bill and other enlightened programs were openly debated as measures to prevent unemployed, combat-trained young men from launching riots or revolution when they returned to ordinary life.

This time it could be worse, because so many of the returnees were volunteers. This is not a citizen army in Iraq; it is a professional army, a good one. But the rest of the nation they are serving if not protecting are barely engaged in this unnecessary fight. I repeat what I said before the war -- irresponsibly? -- if we had a draft army, ourselves and our children, there would have been no Iraq war. True or not, White House propaganda was never persuasive enough to send a citizen army into the desert.

Now we begin the debate about when and how to get them out. It does not matter how that debate ends. The damage has already been done.

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