Back in the sixties, those of us who were young, naive, and politically idealistic, yearned for a presidential candidate like Barrack Obama: End the war. Stop the military-industrial complex. Fight big business' stranglehold on politicians. But we got Richard Nixon: Draft 'em all. Protests are unAmerican. Watergate. Disgrace.
We suffered through those turbulent, contentious years, watching friends die in what seemed to be a meaningless Vietnam conflict. So you would think that we would be able to identify with the millions of today's young, naive, politically idealistic voters who embrace Obama's message, even if they don't need to take to the barricades, or endure the violence of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when police ran amok, randomly clubbing war protestors and bystanders alike, while we all chanted "the whole world is watching".
Nothing like that will happen this summer, but the key issue in November will be a painful echo of 40 years ago - Our War. Now it's the Middle East rather than the Far East. Sandstorms and roadside mines have replaced swamps and booby-trapped jungle. But the questions remain the same: Why we are still there? Do we continue to be slaves to our century-old mantra of making the world free for democracy? A world that is seemingly unappreciative of our efforts.
Both Democratic candidates, Obama and Hillary Clinton, have pledged to return our troops in a matter of months. Republican John McCain foresees a much longer involvement, despite the staggering costs in American lives and dollars. In the 1960's, this was a no-brainer. End Our War yesterday, bring the boys (no girls back then) home tomorrow. What happens after that ain't Our Problem.
Maybe I am becoming more conservative in my old age, but the decision is no longer quite so obvious. Do we want more freckle-faced kids to die overseas? Of course not. But, unlike Vietnam, our combat troops today are all volunteers. No horrified draftees peeing themselves when the shooting starts. And exactly what will happen in Iraq if we are there today, gone tomorrow? Sure, we can end Our War, but that will only escalate The War. Group hugs, and singing kumbaya, are not on the menu for the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians who have been thrown together in a country where the name on the map is the only thing that citizens have in common. If you want a preview, consult Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, Chad, Rwanda.
Are you willing to watch hundreds of thousands of people - many women and children - die in yet another ethnic bloodbath? Ninety-nine percent of the population are not the wild-eyed, Uncle Sam-hating, jihadists we envision. They are victims who, for the most part, suffered under Saddam Hussein, have seen a glimmer of hope as their country is rebuilt under US protection, and now will be defenseless against fundamentalist militias that kill anyone who doubts that they are people of peace. We may not be responsible for the origins of this conflict, but we unleashed it, and are the only ones with the ability to control it. So many lives are at stake. Think about that as you tuck your own kids safely into bed.
The politics of war used to be simpler. Before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before Vietnam, before Korea, our national mission was clear. In World War II, we knew who the enemy was, and were united behind our president. And, as in Iraq, we weren't responsible for the origins of the conflict, but we were the only ones who could control it. By 1941, President Roosevelt had led America out of the Great Depression. We had overcome nationwide hardship on a scale that is unimaginable in our society today, and fully trusted those who had charted the course. So when Pearl Harbor was attacked, we didn't question our involvement, or look to make political hay from the decision.
And throughout the war - which went very poorly at first - the people put aside their differences, and stuck with the president because it was their patriotic duty. Everyone pitched in. Children gathered scrap metal and rubber. Families invested in war stamps and bonds. Women went to work in the factories, while still raising the kids. Men who were too young, or too old, or medically unsound, lied about their age or condition, trying to join up. Rationing of food, gasoline, and many things we take for granted today was a fact of life, and every man, woman, and child knew what it meant to sacrifice.
You never heard political commentators, or pastors, damning the country. There were no apologists justifying the crimes of dictators, or blaming the victims for the attacks. Entertainers made patriotic films, traveled in USO shows, and helped boost our troops' morale. Many even enlisted. School students prayed for our country and our troops. No newspaper would have complained that German or Japanese soldiers were being "tortured" during interrogation. And, in the long run, it was our involvement that made the difference. President Roosevelt made the right decision back then.
Today, President Bush has the lowest approval rating of any American chief executive, for many good reasons, particularly his deceptions that got us involved in Our War in the first place. But once we had destabilized the area, he made the right decision to stay there. His personal motives may be twisted (maintain billion-dollar contracts with companies that supported his election, protect his oil industry, avoid a place in history as the president who gave up), but the result has been to, at least temporarily, prevent genocidal slaughter.
Obama seems like a sensitive person. Hillary is a mother, and let us know that she could cry in public. If either is elected, he or she will have to give serious consideration to the potential consequences of the politically-expedient bring-'em-home-now campaign. It may be a hard sell to the millions who voted for the promise to end Our War quickly. But from a humanity standpoint, it is the right thing to do.