One of the fundamental roots of the American political process is that ultimately, we have civilian, rather than military, leadership of the military. We HAVE had former military leaders (Jackson, WH Harrison, Grant, e.g.) as Presidents. The last person to come from that tradition, Dwight David Eisenhower, warned us against a "military-industrial complex"; that warning proved to be too true.
It is the job of the military to fight wars. It is the duty of the civilian leadership to ascertain those rare times that we should fight those wars. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, from September of 2002 to April 2003, I was at a demonstration against this potential conflict nearly every week. Certainly, I was informed by some of my pacifist acquaintances of the impropriety of a "war of choice." But I was also persuaded by people who had fought in the military: World War II veteran George HW Bush ("41"), who chose NOT to go into Baghdad during the Gulf War and Vietnam War veteran Colin Powell, who helped lead the Gulf War effort. (Powell has recanted his February 2003 testimony before the U.N.)
During the buildup to the war, perhaps in January 2003, CBS News reporter Bob Simon, who was captured during the 1991 Gulf War, did an opinion piece for CBS Sunday Morning. He said, essentially, that the U.S. has over 100,000 troops in Iraq, Saddam Hussein is (reluctantly) letting the inspectors go wherever they want looking for the WMDs. Why not keep the status quo? Just keep looking until they’re found?
Of course, that was not the intention of the "chicken hawks" Bush, Cheney and those around them. They wanted to invade Iraq, and seemed to have used 9/11 as the excuse. I haven’t found a more recent poll, but in a Harris poll in February 2005: 47 percent believed that Saddam Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, up six percentage points from November; 44 percent actually believed that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis, up significantly from 37% in November (most of the hijackers were Saudis); 36 percent believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded (down slightly from 38% in November).
As much as I opposed the war, I was also of the opinion that those military leaders that wanted 300,000 troops were probably right. But the administration wanted to win the war on the cheap, so they found someone to agree with their numbers, around 135,000, launched the war, toppled Saddam, and W infamously declared "Mission Accomplished."
Meanwhile, those opposing the war were forced on their heels with three little words: "Support the Troops." War opponents were bending over backwards showing that "we support the troops", if not the particular mission. But opposing the war was tantamount to treason, even more so than during Vietnam, the last war I actively opposed. I look at things this way: the troops are supposed to fight when and where assigned. They should avoid egregious errors (My Lai, Abu Gharib). But the decision to deploy falls on the civilian leadership.
The parallels with Vietnam came out very quickly, and I'm not sure I bought them early on, but now, I'm more inclined to: VietNam: A long, and largely, secret relationship, going back to 1956. Iraq: A long, and largely, secret relationship, going back to at least 1983. VietNam: The rationale is to stop the spread of communism there, lest we fight it at our front door. Iraq: The rationale is to stop the spread of terrorism there, lest we fight it at our front door. VietNam: Our broader involvement was based on a big lie. (Gulf of Tonkin resolution, 1964.) Iraq: Our broader involvement was based on a big lie. (9/11 and Iraq, 2001 onward.)
So on this Veterans’ Day, I recognize and honor the great valor of those who have fought in wars, even as I mourn again the idiocy that got us here.
(The picture above is of my friend David and me at an antiwar demonstration in mid-February 2003.)