One of the things that griped me most about the way that the Bush administration handled its invasion of Iraq was that, if one criticized the war, the representatives of the administration would accuse the critic of not honoring “our brave soldiers.” This is not the first time that tactic has been used. Those who objected to the Vietnam War were often characterized as insulting the American soldiers fighting there. It was a clever way for those responsible for the war to avoid the difficult question of whether we should have been involved in the first place.
Last night, MSNBC’s Matt Lauer had the veterans who participated in the Iraq invasion to identify themselves, and then asked Secretary Clinton whether she worried about how it made these people feel for her to say that the Iraq invasion was a mistake. It was a profoundly improper question, and oddly enough it was not asked of Donald Trump, who also now claims that the invasion was a mistake. The real problem with the question, however, was that it was so misplaced. The real question should have been asked of the veterans, most of whom quite likely agreed with Clinton’s opinion that the whole thing should never have happened. They should have been asked how they felt being sent to a war that should never have been started.
This kind of thing happens far too often in the political world. The powers that be make some awful decision on policy, and then, when it is criticized, those same powers announce that the critics are un-American. This was the atmosphere during the Nixon years, when any criticism of presidential policy was considered just shy of treasonous. It is yet another example of replacing the reality with the symbol. “America, love it or leave it” is an insult to the very ideals on which the nation is founded.
The essential beauty of the United States is that we are free to express our opinions and free to live our lives as we wish. That is, of course, a two-way street. Those who oppose us are equally free to live as they wish and criticize as and when they see fit. It is the genius of the American ideal that our own freedom does not stand alone but is rather derived from our recognition of the rights of every other person. It is that very genius that is renewed in the expression, “I object to what he says but I will fight to the death to allow him to say it.”
That fact, that our own freedom is derived from the freedom we recognize in others, is essential to the American ideal. And it is just that deep commitment, that enspiriting core of the American ideal, that is under attack when politics comes down to name calling, when reasoned discussion of issues is replaced by appeals to bigotry.
We are faced, in this presidential election, with two candidates who have none of the appeal of a Kennedy or a Reagan. Well, good. Maybe we will set aside images and vote for what the candidate’s policies are rather than what the candidate’s looks are.