Sunday, May 16, 2004

We weep for Nick Berg as we wept for Daniel Pearl, and for all men and women who sacrifice their lives for standing up for freedom amidst the cruelty of war.

Mr. Berg did not choose to be a hero, but his death is a painful and expensive reminder of the nature of the war we fight. We’re at war against cowardswho murderfor thejoyof killing “infidels” in a demented interpretation of Islam. We’re at war against hate-crazed zealots who take innocent lives as testimony to a cheap imagination of manhood.

The death of Nick Berg quieted the drumbeat of outrage and self-loathing that accompanied the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison. We rightly condemn those as acts of brutality and stupidity perpetrated by a tiny segment of our military that in the Age of the Image are magnified as though they define America at war.

But we must not forget that those photographs became public because an American soldier took his job seriously and exposed the barbarous acts of his colleagues. Army Spec. Joseph Darby, 24, an Army Reservist and member of the 372nd Military Police Company, is the hero of this scandal, a soldier who understood that soldiers must not act in this way. He slipped a note under his commander’s door, describing the mistreatment of the prisoners. He was acting on an honor code of conscience, which couldn’t have been easy to do. But he did what every good soldier must do: Speak truth to dishonor.

The justifiable public outrage swiftly took on a life of its own and before long suggested a false moral equivalence between an army that fundamentally fights fair and an enemy that only fights dirty. The legitimate army at war with terrorist criminals was soon at risk of demoralization, as if all soldiers must be tainted by the acts of a few. Worse, some of our best minds were blinded by their zeal to right wrongs.

The cost to the United States for its abandonment of Vietnam was the loss of respect for the military. Soldiers came home from Vietnam to a cold and hostile public. Only after the success of the Gulf War did we begin to rebuild the image of the soldier. The soldiers who entered Baghdad were heroes to all of us and the gentle treatment they extended to civilian men, women and children in Iraq was touching, reminiscent of the soldiers who liberated Europe a generation ago.

This is a different army. Many are reservists who joined up as much for the pay as for devotion to duty, honor, country or even in the expectation of active duty. Jobs in the military are increasingly “outsourced,” and many civilians act as guards, cooks or dishwashers. This has the advantage of freeing the warrior for fighting, but the disadvantage of diluting discipline and cohesion.

It’s not so difficult to speculate how the photographs at Abu Ghraib might have been handled if this were not an election year. Would so many Democrats have jumped on the bandwagon to scapegoat Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a way of getting at George W. Bush? The president gives every appearance of understanding this.

The polls support him, and he maintains a slender advantage over Sen. John Kerry, even after a daunting month of really bad news. The Democratic candidate for president, even against this backdrop, can’t establish himself as a leader, unable even to capitalize on his heroic military service in Vietnam.

Mr. Kerry as flawed military hero running for president recalls another flawed hero running for president. George B. McClellan ought to have been everything the Democrats could have asked for as their candidate in 1864. In the summer of 1864, the nation had grown weary of war; the thrill of saving the Union was fading; and Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to convert the war to save the Union to the war to end slavery was getting only mixed reviews. Lincoln feared for the Union and imagined his presidency doomed. But McClellan, for all his heroics, his medals and his reputation as “the young Napoleon,” could gain no traction in a dirty, negative campaign.

McClellan supporters referred to Lincoln as an “ignoramus” and a “butcher”; the Republicans ran as the party of patriotism, accusing the Democrats of disloyalty. But then Lincoln loosed Sherman on the Georgia breadbasket. Sherman burned and looted from Atlanta to the sea while Phil Sheridan drove down the Valley of Virginia with similar ruthlessness. Weariness with war soon gave way to renewed confidence, Lincoln was rescued, and the Republicans won with 55 percent of the vote. If my Southern friends will forgive me, dare we look for analogies?

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