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Last week, on national television, I debated Jonathan Alter, a
Newsweek editor. Harvard-sharp, he’s a super-hawk who wants to stick our
troops in the middle of Kosovo’s killing fields.
While he made a good argument, his analysis was flawed. True, he’s
incredibly bright, but the man has never been on a battlefield or worn a
uniform. All of his knowledge comes from either secondhand information
The same kind of non-street-smart intellectuals led the nation down a
bloody path in Vietnam. “McNamara’s Whiz Kids,” and “The Best and the
Brightest.” Alter’s performance made me take a hard look at all those
gung-ho talking heads on the tube who argue so skillfully that America
should get stuck into the war with Serbia, muddy boots and all. And
guess what? Not only have the vast majority of these war advocates
never served in our armed forces, most of them like Alter have never
even been near a hot battlefield.
Also relevant many of these baby boomer hawks like Bill Clinton, his
Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy
Berger manipulated the system to avoid the mean streets of combat when
they themselves were of dying age.
Maybe if they’d answered their country’s call then and seen their
best friend’s legs blown off and watched him slowly bleed to death; or,
been with a rifle platoon caught in an ambush on foreign turf, unable to
see the enemy, trying and failing to lure him out of the shadows; or,
heard the cry of “medic” from 19-year-olds who had wounds more horrible
than if they’d been worked over by a chain saw; or, had friendly
aircraft bomb or strafe them and not been able to shut it off because
their 21-year-old leader and his 18-year-old radio operator had already
had their lives snuffed out, maybe then their attitude about sending
grunts to Serbia would be a lot less enthusiastic.
Maybe if they and our politicians — whose criminal silence is
allowing the momentum of a ground-troop commitment to go unquestioned —
had a son or daughter dressed in combat green with a fighting battalion
earmarked for Serbia they’d ask the questions that millions of our
veterans are asking: How is our national security involved in Serbia?
Didn’t we learn from Vietnam never to get stuck in someone else’s civil
war? Once we get in, how do we get out? And by the way, who pays for
the 30-year occupation of that divided land once the fighting stops —
Sadly, the public’s buying the rush to war propaganda. Recent polls
say 70 percent of the public wants to send ground troops. Seventy
percent is probably close to the number of Americans who’ve never served
in our armed forces. Good folks, moved by the TV horror pictures and
the talking heads, who now want to end the mindless slaughter in Kosovo.
Ironically, when I went to Korea in 1950 and Vietnam in 1965, the
opinion polls were in the 70s too. But when the body bags started
coming home, the polls sank like the Titanic and the public started
demanding “What are we doing there?” Which rapidly changed to, “Let’s
get out now.”
I was recently on a radio show in Columbus, Ga., the home of the U.S.
Army Infantry. Columbus knows about war like few other U.S. cities.
They’ve been producing our nation’s front-line fighting men since early
in this century — and burying them too. Many serving grunts live there
and real warriors have retired there.
The radio show had just conducted a poll of the local folks. Eighty
percent were opposed to a ground commitment in Serbia — which is 180
degrees out of synch with the national polls.
Unlike the Alters, those polled in Columbus know the horror of war.
They know this one won’t be another CNN special like Desert Storm, where
green missiles zip through the sky and genial generals joke as they talk
about chopping off snake heads.
They know the horror of war because they’ve been there. It’s tragic
that they along with veterans all over America aren’t on the tube
debating the experts and telling the people like it really is.