- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

You have to hand it to democracy. Then, sometimes, you have to snatch it right back: “it” being credit for harmonizing human relationships through, among other glories, free speech.

“Democracy” is a one-word answer to the question “How’d this Iraq mess suddenly get so messy?”

It takes a democracy — in our own case, the greatest of them all — to get bollixed in the beguiling way familiar now to the whole world, hoisted, you might say, by its constitutional petard.

Only a democracy would care a rap whether it slaughtered civilians in Fallujah and abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The Soviet secret police would have jailed or otherwise silenced those in the media or the political world who objected to such measures; so, for that matter, would Saddam Hussein’s not-so-secret police.

We turn ourselves inside out because we care that Americans do things the right way, with full and earnest respect for human rights. You could call this concern our crowning glory. You could likewise call it the incubus that drains our national spirit. Try, if you like, reconciling those variant considerations, both of them genuine.

A deeper irony is the American determination to build in Iraq yet another vulnerable democracy, vulnerable on account of openness and the rule of law.

Another irony is deeper still. And more chilling. It is that our democratic infighting — all so legitimate under the Constitution — could cost us full victory in the entirely just, entirely legitimate battle to extend democracy to the Middle East.

Morale is the key question. Lacking morale — lacking, that is to say, a sense of justified purpose in a difficult endeavor — one can’t prevail over a bowl of wet noodles.

American morale, some of us have been noticing for the past few decades, is sunk in lethargy, trammeled by doubt and guilt. The variant viewpoints we have been treated to — all so very proper under the Constitution — have turned slowly into a chorus of self-accusation.

The other night, my wife and I attended John Lee Hancock’s too-much-minimized movie “The Alamo.” It occurred to me at the time: This is a movie about men — the Texans — blessed with high morale, men who did things and never looked back. So palpable was their trust in democratic freedom that, to further its prospects, they laid down their lives.

I am uncertain how many of comparable spirit could be found to affirm comparable purposes today.

In the military, yes; many such serve there. In civilian life, there seem, proportionately, many fewer. While the soldiers stick out their necks, the civilians beat their breasts. Over what?

Over America’s continuing failure to meet their expectations. Over capital punishment and racism and inadequate gun control. Over cruelty to fur-bearing animals and Sequoia trees. Over Mel Gibson and evangelical Christians. Over a host of things that our charter of liberties, and that charter alone, licenses us to debate with passion.

The tendency to close ranks during wartime —so manifest in the 1941-45 period — is honored more in the breach than in the observance by New York Times columnists and Ted Kennedy speechwriters.

In some aeries of the higher learning, the charming Muqtada al-Sadr likely numbers more sympathizers than does the U.S. president working to entrench in Iraq the right to imitate the banalities of our own anti-war left.

Any old excuse to insult the American war effort. What about those weapons of mass destruction? How dare we circumvent the United Nations? It’s all for oil and Halliburton.

Abu Ghraib, a one- or two-star offense in a five-star rating system, shames us but hardly ranks with the Hanoi Hilton or even Andersonville.

Steadiness under fire, the indispensable attribute in warfare, is a function of morale. Doubtful morale is undermining that steadiness to the point dictatorship could yet beat back democracy’s Middle Eastern onslaught. Proud fans of democracy — bless ‘em — need to ponder that prospect with the utmost seriousness and concern.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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