ELIZABETHTOWN, PA — About three years ago, when antiwar panels
and antiwar sloganeering were the order of the day at my college, I
predicted such impassioned protests would end — not when American
military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was terminated — but
when a Democrat, and preferably one on the social left, became president.
I was right. These days, as I walk among my formerly pacifist colleagues
and read their preferred news sources, I don’t hear a murmur
of complaint about “the president’s strategy” for
extricating our troops from military danger. It is as if we were living
in messianic times, when the wolf is lying down with the lamb. This
is all because we now have Obama in the White House and overwhelming
Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
Once I was naïve enough to wonder why the critics of our war
in Iraq on the right and on the left did not join hands in a common
enterprise. The answer is that the Democratic Left, with few exceptions,
was never opposed in principle to military entanglements overseas.
While rightwing opponents of Bush’s foreign policy were marginalized
and vilified for their dissent by GOP commentators and the mainstream
conservative movement, the Democratic Left engaged in griping as a
means of taking power.
As I noted in a column two years ago, the only “conservative” columnists
featured in The New York Times were frenetically in favor
of an American mission to impose democracy by force. Not coincidentally,
these columnists, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, and David Frum, are closer
to the liberal left on social issues than to many on the antiwar Right.
Domestic politics for most of the Left has always trumped mostly bogus
antiwar rhetoric. The Left can take or leave that issue, depending
on other interests.
Pacifist sentiment on the left has usually been selective, in the
same way that the Democratic Left only began to notice the House Committee
for Un-American Activities, organized by Congress to fight subversion
in 1938, when Communist sympathizers were being called to testify in
1946. When the same committee went after those who were suspected of
being pro-fascist during World War II (that is, during what historians
call the Good War), the Left found no reason to object, any more than
it now cares to notice the threat to our civil rights posed by the
hate crime legislation that the Democratic Congress is getting ready
Despite my habituation to such hypocrisy, I was nonetheless taken
aback by a recent column by The New York Times-syndicated columnist
Bob Herbert about shouldering the burden of war. Herbert, who had protested
the belligerence of the Bush administration, still believes that “the
war in Afghanistan made sense once but does so no longer.” Moreover, “the
war in Iraq never did.”
In spite of these reservations, Herbert’s thinking about the
war has changed in the last year. He began to perceive that “so
few are willing to serve at a time when the nation is fighting two
long wars is a profound indictment on the society.” Herbert would
like to deal with this imbalance by reinstating the draft, although
he admits that it might not work. He reminds his readers that “we
should all be pitching in. We shouldn’t be leaving the entire
monumental burden to a tiny portion of the population,” namely
to those unlucky few who keep going back on multiple tours in Iraq
The question is how to furnish the government with more troops, particularly
since “instead of winding down our involvement in Afghanistan,
we are now ratcheting it up. Herbert cites “a comment that President
Barack Obama made in a recent address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “ Here
the president, while “not chiding those who are not serving,” also
noted that “less than one percent wears the uniform.” Although
Herbert no longer sees any sense in increasing our commitment to the
pacification of Afghanistan, and presumably to sending more soldiers
there, he also wishes us to jump to our feet when his adored leader
gives marching orders.
I doubt such a column would cause any discomfort among my selectively
antiwar colleagues or among those Church of the Brethren intellectuals,
whom I heard for years denouncing Republican war-hawks at our college
assemblies. Such people have no problem with military engagements or
infringements on civil liberties, providing they are not being carried
out by Republicans or others identified with the Right. Although anti-Republican
war protestor Herbert may take the cake for utter hypocrisy, I could
easily imagine millions of onetime shrieking opponents of “Bush’s
wars” demanding that we stand united behind Obama’s ratcheted-up
struggle in Afghanistan. It is our redeemer president who is asking
us to put our lives on the line for his war. In the world of partisan
politics, that is entirely different from having a Republican president
doing the same.
The Ornery Observer archives
The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2009
by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All
rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster
(Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.
Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities
at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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