Is anyone here old enough to remember the urgent warning issued in a speech to the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2002 by an American vice president who had artfully avoided the military draft during wartime? Dick Cheney, after acknowledging he was convinced that Saddam Hussein would “acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon,” went on to beat the war drums: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”
There was not then, and there never would be, any stockpile of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs to be used against us. It was worse than “fake news”; it was taking his country into war under false pretenses, leaving as its legacy death, disillusionment and, yes, despair. But let us also recall the wise, if unheeded, words of a former Marine Corps company commander in Vietnam who there earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts; he posed the consideration the Republican administration sending American troops into Iraq refused to broach with the American people: “whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years.”
That was Jim Webb, who would later be elected to the U.S. Senate from Virginia as an anti-war Democrat. He warned, “wars often have unintended consequences — ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days.” Today, 75 years after World War II, the U.S. still has troops stationed in both Germany and Japan, and 67 years after the Korean War ended, American soldiers remain on dangerous watch in Korea.
Does anyone else remember the young Army captain in Vietnam who had held in his arms a young soldier who had stepped on a land mine and was dying? Colin Powell knew firsthand how painful it was to write condolence letters to the grieving next of kin. That led directly to the doctrine that would carry his name; it says that the U.S. should commit men and women to combat only as a last resort and after policy options have been exhausted — and then only 1) when a vital national security interest of the nation is at stake, 2) when the U.S. force employed is overwhelming and disproportionate to the force of the enemy, 3) when the mission and military action are both understood and supported by the American people, and the mission has international support, and 4) when there is a clear and plausible exit strategy for the U.S. troops sent into harm’s way.
Maybe you recall the gentle rebuke Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had for the fawning flatterers who lionized him after his successful leadership in the Persian Gulf War. He said: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.” These thoughts all come back when an American president, our only chief executive never to have served a single day in either public service or military service before coming to the White House, again confronted a hostile Iran by sending more American troops into harm’s way in Iraq. Now is the time to be sure to remember.