I began this column last week with a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln in which harsh treatment was deemed warranted for congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military. It turns out to have been a paraphrase of our 16th president’s attitude toward those who engage in such behavior, rather than a direct quote.
I regret the error and should, instead, have used the following, verbatim excerpt from a letter President Lincoln wrote in June 1863, as Robert E. Lee’s army was on the march north to the fateful battle of Gettysburg. Mr. Lincoln wrote this letter after the arrest of a leading Confederate sympathizer legislator (or “Copperheads” as they were then known), U.S. Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham, Ohio Democrat. It forcefully explains the commander in chief’s thinking about the latitude the Constitution affords to “silence” anti-war “agitators” whose conduct “damages the Army” and threatens to leave the nation without the military means to “suppress” its enemies:
“Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier-boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert? This is none the less injurious when effected by getting a father, or brother, or friend, into a public meeting, and there working upon his feelings till he is persuaded to write the soldier-boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked Administration of a contemptible Government, too weak to arrest and punish him if he shall desert.
“I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.”
Mr. Lincoln went on to declare that: “[Vallandigham’s] arrest was made because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops; to encourage desertions from the Army; and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it. He was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the Administration, or the personal interests of the commanding general, but because he was damaging the Army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the nation depends.”
It is fitting that we reflect carefully on Abe Lincoln’s insights and strong words, not just because this is the time of year we celebrate his remarkable life and momentous presidency. His views are all the more salient as congressional “agitators” once again justify their vehement opposition to the incumbent president’s war efforts with denunciations of “a wicked Administration of a contemptible Government.” Now, as then, they threaten the adequacy of the military force needed to “suppress” a violent insurgency. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, today as in 1863, the very “life of the nation” hangs in the balance if we fail to defeat the coming nexus of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Islamofascists.
These parallels were the subject of an extraordinary December 2003 Insight Magazine article where the paraphrase of Lincoln’s views was inadvertently transformed by a copy editor into a quote. Improbably, and unbeknownst to me when I wrote my column last week, the article’s author was none other than a colleague at the Center for Security Policy, J. Michael Waller. The full article (which can be viewed at http://fourthworldwar.blogspot.com/2003/12/when-does-politics-become-treason.html) should be required reading for those who wish to participate responsibly in a debate about where to draw the line between legitimate dissent and unacceptable treachery, if not actual treason, on the part of legislators ever-more-stridently opposed to the present war effort.
As Mr. Waller observed, there clearly is a distinction to be drawn between constructive disagreement about the conflict in Iraq and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The former can be compatible with a genuine commitment to the troops and to their success, as well as their safety. It would, however, require the dissenters to propose other strategies for victory — not simply the use of code-words for defeat, like “redeployment” and “regional diplomacy.”
It is highly ironic that many of those most critical of President Bush for not having a “plan” for post-invasion Iraq are conspicuously quiet about what would happen after their plan for retreat is adopted. They seem irresponsibly unconcerned about the prospect that, after America capitulates, there would be genocidal mayhem in Iraq, creation of a new safe-haven for terrorism there and a general emboldening of our enemies around the world.
Such behavior is even more intolerable when compounded by today’s “agitators” demeaning the troops they profess to support — notably, by comparing them to Nazis, terrorists, rapists and the killing fields — and threatening to deny them (through one device or another) the means required to accomplish their mission. In the offing are new legislative initiatives aimed at limiting the authority given to the president in 2002 to achieve Iraq’s liberation and tying his hands with respect to the growing threat from Iran — even that the regime in Tehran is currently posing to our troops fighting next door in Iraq.
These critics, particularly members of Congress, must be held accountable for such destructive dissent. Our enemies believe their strategy for achieving a political victory by wearing down the United States is succeeding. They are redoubling their efforts as they perceive the rising power of irresponsible anti-war “agitators.”
Abraham Lincoln understood the difference between constructive dissent and treacherous agitation. There is no mistaking his determination to “silence” the latter through means he judged to be constitutional. The question occurs: Will it take some further, even more catastrophic attack here at home — an attack made more likely by the irresponsible behavior of today’s agitators — to silence their defeatism and reunify the country behind a necessary program for victory?
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.