Does dissent have a place in wartime?

Playing patriotism card is shameless

Steve Chapman

March 27, 2003

Are you patriotic or anti-war? If you think that's a false choice, you probably weren't in attendance at one of the "Pro-America/Support Our Troops" rallies held in cities across the country last weekend.

In the view of many citizens who favor the invasion of Iraq, opposition is symptomatic of anti-Americanism, and open dissent during a time of war comes close to treason. At some rallies, marchers carried signs saying, "America--Love It or Leave It."

It's hard to see why people should be expected to leave a free country because they have the gall to exercise their freedom. Maybe the ones who should leave are their critics, who would be more comfortable in a country whose government tolerates no criticism--say, Iraq. Or maybe they think we can't deliver liberty to the Iraqi people unless we first confiscate it from the American people.

There is no contradiction between loving your country and wanting it to stay out of unwise wars that expose American soldiers and civilians to needless dangers. Nor does demonstrating against the war imply a desire to see the United States lose. I can't speak for all critics of the war, but once the bombs started falling, I wanted exactly what the supporters want: a swift victory and the safe return of all our soldiers, marines, sailors and aviators.

As is often the case when the nation is embroiled in military conflict, however, those who favor war make every effort to appropriate the flag as their own political symbol. They insist that public opposition to the war provides comfort to Saddam Hussein and betrays those risking their lives in Iraq. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said a few weeks ago, "It is our duty as loyal Americans to shut up once the fighting begins, unless facts prove the operation wrong, as was the case in Vietnam."

Shut up once the fighting begins? You first, Bill. People who opposed the war have no duty to gag themselves once the war is underway--any more than Bill Clinton's enemies had an obligation to cease their criticism once he won his impeachment trial.

Nor is blind support of government policy any favor to those in uniform. Supporters of the war often suggest that the debate is between those with military experience and those without. Not so. Many of its advocates in the administration haven't served--including Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. The main skeptic has been Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Some prominent veterans have criticized the administration for invading Iraq rather than simply keeping Hussein in the cage to which he has been confined for 12 years. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, came out against the invasion last year. So did Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force general who served as national security adviser to the first President Bush.

They have plenty of company. Shortly before the war began, an organization called Veterans for Common Sense sent a public letter to the White House signed by 986 veterans of every rank and service, saying that they "strongly question the need for war at this time."

One of them was Charles Sheehan-Miles, a decorated Army combat veteran of the Persian Gulf war and a co-founder of the group. What did he think about protesters back then? "It made me happy that there were people who cared enough to take a stand on the issue," he says.

As for the reaction of his fellow soldiers, Sheehan-Miles recalls, "It was mixed. Some thought nobody should protest, and some thought it was OK, and a lot didn't care one way or the other." It doesn't show much regard for our military people to think they would fall to pieces upon hearing that some people question the president's mission.

Supporters of the war don't really believe that dissent is intolerable in wartime. Even O'Reilly said it would be defensible if "facts prove the operation wrong." You can be sure conservatives will object loudly if they think the administration is waging the war with insufficient force or resolve. But if that sort of criticism isn't dangerous to the war effort, why is criticism from the other side?

Playing the patriotism card or the veterans card is a shameless attempt to discredit and intimidate dissenters, which is easier than proving them wrong. The real divide is between those who see open debate in a democracy as a weakness and those who see it as a strength. The anti-war demonstrators may be wrong about some things, but they're right about that.



Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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