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Time's Now to Speak Up About War
Published on Tuesday, August 20, 2002 in the Miami Herald
Time's Now to Speak Up About War
by Robert Steinback
Are the American people ready for war?
The American public has been remarkably taciturn in the face of screaming hints that the Bush administration is posturing for war in Iraq.
Many experts, including conservatives, have questioned both the need for and the costs of war in Iraq.
But the public discussion has been tepid and hushed, as if being held in a library. I've heard more passion about the looming baseball strike than about possible American casualties in Baghdad.
Few candidates for office have questioned this war talk. There have been no noteworthy antiwar demonstrations -- or pro-war demonstrations, for that matter. Today's college students -- whose generation would fight the war -- have said nothing.
This public reticence in the face of contemplated American military aggression is astounding. Have we nothing at all to say? Is there no debate to be staged?
The only 20th century war instigated by the United States without direct provocation -- not counting a few minuscule, all-but-unopposed operations in places like Grenada, Panama and Haiti -- was its most disastrous: Vietnam. In every other case, either we or nations friendly to us were attacked by hostile forces.
Americans generally aren't keen on war, but we won't brook hostile action against Uncle Sam. Knowing this, President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 invented the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The attack Johnson described never occurred. But he told the nation America had to respond. Before we knew what we were doing or why, we were mired in a war that we couldn't win and couldn't leave.
The body bags began to mount. A domestic antiwar movement spontaneously ignited as the American public finally began to ask the relevant questions: Why are we there? What are we fighting to achieve?
The young protesters were denounced by the establishment as unpatriotic, if not traitorous, for not supporting the government. They were castigated for undercutting our combat forces in the field.
Today, 29 years after we skulked out of Vietnam, familiar rhetoric surfaces again: It's unpatriotic to question your government's saber rattling. Wave your flag and shut up.
Pardon me for raising my hand, but doesn't the government work for us? Aren't we supposed to be scrutinizing its every action? Isn't open debate, not compulsory jingoism, the truest expression of democratic principles?
The Vietnam protest generation is today's establishment, and we're conflicted: We were right about Vietnam but wrong to scorn individual U.S. soldiers. Sept. 11 inspired a spirited patriotism such as we hadn't known in our lifetimes, and it feels good. Questioning Washington is discomforting.
My fear is that this is precisely what President Bush's hawks are counting on.
The American public was solidly behind the campaign to crush the Taliban government, which harbored combatants who attacked the United States and vowed to do it again.
But Bush cornered himself with his own inflamed war rhetoric. He promised us Osama bin Laden's head and hasn't delivered it. He identified an ''Axis of Evil'' and now can't fail to act against it.
Though there are differences, today's anti-terror talk sounds eerily reminiscent of the anti-communism talk of a generation ago. Should we oppose communism and terror? Yes. Does it mean that anything and everything goes? No.
Thousands of Americans died in Vietnam because a handful of Washington bureaucrats were too drunk with their own machismo to chart a different course.
We mustn't stand by and watch this happen again.
The Vietnam protest generation should have learned this: If we don't want our government to initiate a questionable war halfway around the world, we'd better speak up now -- before, not after, the body bags start arriving.
Robert Steinback is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder
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