FRIENDS AND VETERANS
IT WAS DURING PRODUCTION FOR my film THE WAR WITHIN that I first came across the famous poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers” by Archibald MacLeish, but it certainly was not the first time I had pondered the price of war. Even as a very young boy, I tried, unsuccessfully, to extract the meaning of war from my father, who served in the Army overseas during World War II.
He resisted, time and again, looking rather distressed and puzzled by the notion that his youngest son — the second last of seven children — had this persistent curiosity about his time in Italy fighting Hitler and Mussolini’s troops. Being a Southerner by birth, Dad has always been a private man, with little interest in divulging excessive emotion or grandiose stories. Now, at 87, not much has changed, although he has loosened up a bit, and he even surprised me with critical comments about President Bush and Iraq. This, coming from a lifelong Republican.
Today is Memorial Day in America. Thousands of miles away in Belgium, however, young schoolchildren began their day at the Flanders Field cemetary, honoring the fallen American heroes from World War I who helped save their country at a desperate time in Belgian history. Under a clear blue sky, they sang the Star Spangled Banner and placed small American flags next to Belgian ones in memory of those who died to preserve the liberty of this great nation.
It gives me pause to consider that we're nearly 100 years removed from the first ‘Great War,’ yet small children in Belgium still take the time to learn our national anthem and pay homage to our nation’s sacrifice. I have a friend — a Hollywood actor and Vietnam veteran — who rails at many Veterans' organizations for demanding the kind of attention afforded to vets every Memorial Day, but I have a feeling that as he ages, even he must know that his sacrifice is worth such respect. Every veteran who fought with valor — in Belgium or Vietnam — should be thanked for their efforts.
In addition to acknowledging war veterans from every era, though, it may be wise to think back a few short years ago, when Vice President Dick Cheney, a non-veteran who'd been relegated to bunkers deep beneath the White House, came out to attack then Democratic presidential candidate John F, Kerry, an actual honest-to-God war hero, over the Iraq War.
As the Bush effort in Iraq began to sink in the polls, you might recall, the long shadow of Cheney re-emerged. Acting like the wise Nostradamus of warfare. Cheney attacked Kerry for reportedly claiming that the "coalition" of countries in Iraq was "bribed and coerced" into committing troops to the coalition.
"If such dismissive terms are the vernacular of the golden age of diplomacy Senator Kerry promises," Cheney fumed at the time, "we are left to wonder which nations would care to join any future coalition." Which nations, indeed, following the administration who put the word "mess" back into Mesopotamia.
Since it is Memorial Day, we should use this time to remember that it was actually Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who shattered NATO with his contemptuous characterization of France, Germany and others as "Old Europe," simply because they failed to fall in line with the Bush administrations views on war with Iraq.
Over a period of days, if not hours, he and other Bush-men poisoned allegiances crafted generations ago. . .and Rumsfeld's subsequent coronation of Spain and others as "New Europe" further insulted people across the continent, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Membership to Club Iraq came with a one-way ticket to Baghdad and a boatload of bank notes, as we have now learned, but the price of war, beyond the tragedy of thousands of lives lost, is becoming too hot for our allies to bear.
Since "such dismissive terms" have often been the vernacular of the Bush administration, it's hard to see how Cheney and his Spiro Agnew-like attacks did anything other than prove the wisdom of most European leaders who opposed this war, based mainly on the fact that they knew it would prove to be a quagmire, as it has.
So, as the United States backpedals and clumsily reaches out to Old Europe in an attempt to garner support for rebuilding Iraq — more of New Europe's leaders pull out of the effort in Iraq, as Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a key U.S. ally did, and as Canada is now debating as well. It cost Tony Blair his popularity and his job, just as Vietnam cost Lyndon Johnson his in 1968.
Just as the vast majority of Europeans communicated from the outset, the Iraqi conflict has hurt the war on terrorism. As a nation, we are now threatened by the very war the president was obsessed with executing.
Real friends are supposed to listen to one another with consideration and respect. When a cacophony of nations — all of whom have displayed loyalty to the United States in the past decades — begged us not to go to war with Iraq, All the President's Men couldn't wait to tell the rumor mill that France had violated the embargo on Iraq and "supplied the Iraqis with chemicals and other materials," that the Germans were wrong about messages they intercepted prior to 9/11, and more scurrilous public relations.
In addition, more than one retired military officer made it plain to the media and others that once the major fighting ceased, we not only would find weapons of mass destruction, but French and Russian complicity with Iraq as well.
They would become items on the long list of outlandish charges disproved over time.
Recall, my fellow citizens, that all that the United Nations asked of the Bush administration was to give the inspectors "a few more months" to do their work. These were the same friends who supported the war on terror — and the war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11th — but the Bush administration decided to bully our nation's most important allies in public forums, deriding them as cowards and disloyal profiteers.
ONE YEAR LATER, Vice President Cheney mocked Kerry for his ideas regarding a "golden age of diplomacy," and revealed the continental divide between America and Europe that exists once again.
But by failing to build broad international support for the war and for the reconstruction effort, the Bush administration now appears as homeless beggars — hat in hand — asking for spare change from the very people they spat on during the Iraq war's early days. Clearly, the people of Old Europe have not changed their position on the war, as 80-85 percent still oppose it.
Whether a shift against the war actually sways the electorate away from the Republicans in 2006 remains to be seen, but surely they must now see that our old friends were right — and our venture into Iraq is this generation’s Vietnam — and has created more terror, not less.
They must know that if they had simply concentrated on securing and enabling a real democracy in Afghanistan, the Bush administration likely would have achieved what it wanted: a "beacon of democracy" in the Arab world , Afghan style; a more unified world fighting terrorism side-by-side, and an easy re-election dynasty for Republicans in Congress.
Instead, Bush and the Republicans, having squandered the genuine, widespread warmth and support that came after Sept. 11th, are on new and dangerous turf — some might call it quicksand — as they approach the November elections.
Talk about instant karma.
On this Memorial Day, while we honor all of the brave men and women who fought and died in foreign wars, perhaps we should ask, “what might have happened if we had only listened to our friends?”
On this Memorial Day, I choose to give thanks to not only our veterans, but to the Belgian people as well. For today, thousands of miles away from the nation's capitol, the next generation of Belgian leaders stood with senior citizens and paid homage the memory of American warriors from a century ago.
That's what friends do.