Coming Late to the Table
By BOB HERBERT
The New York Times
Published: May 31, 2008
I guess itâ€™s official now since we have a Bush administration insider, Scott McClellan, telling us that the war in Iraq was a monumental strategic blunder, and that it was sold cynically and deceitfully to a craven Congress and to a public still traumatized by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Some of us already knew that, Scott. Some of us knew it at the time.
In his new book, â€śWhat Happened,â€ť Mr. McClellan even tells us that wars â€śshould only be waged when necessary.â€ť
Gee, Scott, some of us have known that deep in our hearts all of our lives.
Even the most cursory reading of wartime history â€” take your pick: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, any war â€” would convey the message that to engage in warfare unnecessarily is insane.
Reading Mr. McClellanâ€™s book, I kept thinking of the many ordinary people â€” the service members, their relatives, and so many others â€” who have suffered so grievously from this misbegotten and thoroughly unnecessary war.
I remember talking with Tyler Hall, a baby-faced sergeant from Wasilla, Alaska, in 2004. â€śI was blown up in an I.E.D. attack,â€ť he told me.
Sergeant Hall had three bones in his back broken. His arm was broken. He lost his left leg below the knee. He was badly burned. Part of his palate was destroyed. The lower part of his face had to be reconstructed. He suffered a brain injury. And so forth.
That is just the tiniest glimpse of the sort of thing that happens when a president refuses to heed the call of reason and instead, immaturely and unforgivably, sends his countryâ€™s brave young volunteers into a pointless conflagration.
More than 4,000 Americans have made the supreme sacrifice for this unnecessary war.
The New York Times and HBO jointly produced a documentary called â€śLast Letters Home,â€ť a title that requires no explanation. One of those letters was to John Witmer from his daughter Michele, a 20-year-old Army specialist from New Berlin, Wis.
â€śDear Daddy,â€ť she wrote, â€śHappy Fatherâ€™s Day. I love you so much and you canâ€™t imagine how often I think of you. I hope you have lots of fun today and that the weather is lovely.â€ť
Iâ€™ve talked to so many parents who lost children in the war. During an interview in her home in Philadelphia, Celeste Zappa told me about the moment she found out that her son, Sherwood Baker, a sergeant in the Pennsylvania National Guard, had been killed.
One evening in April 2004, Ms. Zappa noticed a man in a dress uniform with medals on his chest coming onto her porch. â€śHe had a notebook in his hand,â€ť she said. â€śI could see him very clearly even though it was dark and kind of raining. So I came out on the porch and I looked at him. And I knew, but I didnâ€™t want to know.â€ť
Sergeant Baker had only been in Baghdad six weeks when he was blown up in an explosion at a factory. An absurd footnote to his death was the fact that he was helping to provide security for the Iraq Survey Group, which was hunting for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
The war in Iraq, which has taken 100,000 or more Iraqi lives, and which will cost the U.S. upwards of $3 trillion, and which continues indefinitely, is a scandal and a crime. Scott McClellan is a little late to be blowing the whistle on this outrage.
More important than his belated musings on the war, and his aggrieved take on the leaking of a C.I.A. operativeâ€™s identity, is Mr. McClellanâ€™s warning about the â€śculture of deceptionâ€ť that has poisoned the very atmosphere of national politics and government.
â€śWashington has become the home of the permanent campaign,â€ť he writes, â€śa game of endless politicking based on the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth, and spin. Governing has become an appendage of politics rather than the other way around, with the electoral victory and the control of power as the sole measures of success.â€ť
Mr. McClellanâ€™s book landed like a bombshell on Washington not because of any startling revelations or staggering new insights, but because he was an insider who wrote unflatteringly about his boss.
Forget that this is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people, and that the truth is supposed to matter. Mr. McClellan is being denounced as a traitor by those who readily accept the culture of deception, and who believe that a government officialâ€™s primary loyalty is not to the people, but to power itself â€” in this case, to the president.
Itâ€™s exactly that kind of thinking that begets unnecessary wars.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
-President Barack Obama, 1st Inaugural address