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A Brutally Frank Assessment on Memorial Day

(Note: A version of this piece was published in The Record on May 21, 2015)

How can we honor, on this Memorial Day, those servicemen and service women who fought and died by the thousands, or who were grievously wounded by the tens of thousands, in a war that most Americans now believe was a mistake? We can begin by not lying to them and their families. They did not die, and they were not maimed, physically and mentally, to protect our freedom or to safeguard our liberty. Our freedom and liberty were not threatened by Saddam Hussein; in fact, one could argue that his removal put the United States at greater risk, because it also meant the removal of a counterweight to Iran's hegemony in the region and its larger global ambitions. No, American lives were not spent for some noble purpose. They were put in harm's way by politicians who were too quick to choose war as the option of first rather than last resort; who failed to consider the unintended consequences of their actions; and who, to put it bluntly, screwed up royally.

The last polling on the efficacy of the Iraq War—ignominiously dubbed "Operation Iraqi Freedom" by President George W. Bush and others who were desperately trying to sell us a bill of goods—took place about a year ago. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted on June 16-22, 2014, determined that 71 percent of Americans believed that the war was not worth the cost in lives, in lives shattered, and in the trillions of dollars to wage it. A CBS/New York Times poll, taken on June 20-22, 2014, reached similar results: 75 percent said that the Iraq War was a waste.

Some politicians still don't get it though, including, most recently, the brother of the president who led us into that war. Fox News' Megyn Kelly asked JEB Bush a simple question: Knowing then what we know now about the absence of WMDs in Iraq and the chaos that ensued, would he have taken us into that war. Bush answered, "Yes, and so would've Hillary Clinton."

It may be that Bush, eager to justify his brother's decision, misheard the question, as he ineptly tried to explain the next day, with the passive-voiced, "mistakes were made" excuse so prevalent in Washington. But he continued to fumble days later, when he once again refused to answer what he termed "a hypothetical question" out of deference, he said, to the loved ones of those who served in the war. In other words, if he were to speak the truth about the United States' involvement in the Iraq War, that it was a waste of lives and money, it would denigrate the sacrifices of those who served. It would tacitly admit that they died or were wounded in vain. And so, Bush doubled down, calling Saddam Hussein's demise justification enough.

Well, sometimes the truth is difficult to bear. In fact, all those lives and all those trillions were spent in vain. And all those record numbers of veterans who took their own lives after facing the horrors of war . . . they, too, died in vain. And those hundreds of thousands of returning war veterans who are still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they are suffering in vain.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, some said we might be getting ourselves into another Viet Nam-like quagmire, an idea the Bush administration ridiculed. They said we'd be welcomed by the Iraqi people as liberators. It didn't turn out that way, of course, and the Viet Nam comparison proved to be spot on, as we committed more troops to another unwinable war, strikingly similar to Lyndon Johnson's dilemma, once he began escalating the war he inherited.

In late May 1964, six months after taking office, President Johnson phoned Richard Russell to ask the Georgia senator's advice on American involvement in Viet Nam, still minimal at the time. Russell said he would get out. Johnson responded, "Well, that's the way I've been feeling for six months." The president then asked, "How important is it to us?" Russell responded, "It isn't important a damn bit."

But Johnson didn't get out. In fact, he asked for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution two and a half months later, which, in effect, declared a greater war on North Viet Nam. And he would go on to commit more than 500,000 troops to the conflict, a conflict he told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, on February 26, 1965, that he didn't "see any way of winning." In the summer of 1966, he persisted in expanding the war, vowing to "not go down in history as the first American president who lost a war."

Johnson's conversations became known 30 years later, when his secret taping of Oval Office conversations became public. But we can imagine those same sorts of discussions going on in the Bush and Obama White Houses, the weighing of options that treat America's sons and daughters as pawns. If Johnson had acted on his moral instincts, instead of his political instincts, 50,000 Americans would not have died, hundreds of thousands more would not have suffered wounds.

Will this senseless waste ever stop? Yes, but only when the American people demand greater accountability from their elected leaders. Only when families of lost service members demand the truth, as the family of Pat Tillman demanded the truth, after the Army tried to pass off his death as having occurred "in the line of devastating enemy fire," instead of as a result of friendly fire. Tillman was awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third highest military decoration, but it was all a public relations ruse. Tillman's brother, in testimony before Congress, called the Army's deception "an insult to the family" and "a public relations exercise," one whose primary purpose was "to deceive a whole nation." He spoke, he said, "with disappointment and sadness for our country."

Pat Tillman, who gave up the riches of an NFL contract to answer his country's call, was a hero, just as thousands of others, with less monetary sacrifice but equal personal sacrifice, are heroes for answering that call in every unnecessary war that has been fought. Let us not put future generations at risk, by cloaking the deaths of brave soldiers in false paeans to the greater glory of American freedom and liberty.
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