avatar
I lost my son to a war I oppose. We were both doing our duty.*


 Parents who lose children, whether through accident or illness,   inevitably wonder what they could have done to prevent their loss.   When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at age 27, I found   myself pondering my responsibility for his death.

 Among the hundreds of messages that my wife and I have received, two   bore directly on this question. Both held me personally culpable,   insisting that my public opposition to the war had provided aid and   comfort to the enemy. Each said that my son’s death came as a direct   result of my antiwar writings.

 

 This may seem a vile accusation to lay against a grieving father. But   in fact, it has become a staple of American political discourse,   repeated endlessly by those keen to allow President Bush a free hand   in waging his war. By encouraging “the terrorists,” opponents of the   Iraq conflict increase the risk to U.S. troops. Although the First   Amendment protects antiwar critics from being tried for treason, it   provides no protection for the hardly less serious charge of failing   to support the troops — today’s civic equivalent of dereliction of duty.

 

 What exactly is a father’s duty when his son is sent into harm’s way?

 

 Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my   son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good   citizen.

 

 As a citizen, I have tried since Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a critical   understanding of U.S. foreign policy. I know that even now, people of   good will find much to admire in Bush’s response to that awful day.   They applaud his doctrine of preventive war. They endorse his crusade   to spread democracy across the Muslim world and to eliminate tyranny   from the face of the Earth. They insist not only that his decision to   invade Iraq in 2003 was correct but that the war there can still be   won. Some — the members of the “the-surge-is-already-working” school   of thought — even profess to see victory just over the horizon.

 

 I believe that such notions are dead wrong and doomed to fail. In   books, articles and op-ed pieces, in talks to audiences large and   small, I have said as much. “The long war is an unwinnable one,” I   wrote in this section of The Washington Post in August 2005. “The   United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the   onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other   regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We’ve   done all that we can do.”

 

 Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But   I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others   – teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks — to educate the   public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked.   I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive   to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders   in Washington would listen and respond.

 

 This, I can now see, was an illusion.

 

 The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The   November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation   of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a   year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by   sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like   my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete   disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as “the will of the   people.”

 

 To be fair, responsibility for the war’s continuation now rests no   less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president   and his party. After my son’s death, my state’s senators, Edward M.   Kennedy and John F. Kerry, telephoned to express their condolences.   Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son’s wake. Kerry was   present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such   gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending   the war, I got the brushoff. More accurately, after ever so briefly   pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that   said in essence: Don’t blame me.

 

 To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the   same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove –   namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.

 

 Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will   yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures   that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and   Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S.   soldiers figure as an afterthought.

 

 Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.’s life is priceless. Don’t   believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a   soldier’s life: I’ve been handed the check. It’s roughly what the   Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning once he starts pitching next   month.

 

 Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized   politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn   channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about   isolationism, appeasement and the nation’s call to “global   leadership.” It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much   our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the   question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free   speech little more than a means of recording dissent.

 

 This is not some great conspiracy. It’s the way our system works.

 

 In joining the Army, my son was following in his father’s footsteps:   Before he was born, I had served in Vietnam. As military officers, we   shared an ironic kinship of sorts, each of us demonstrating a peculiar   knack for picking the wrong war at the wrong time. Yet he was the   better soldier — brave and steadfast and irrepressible.

 

 I know that my son did his best to serve our country. Through my own   opposition to a profoundly misguided war, I thought I was doing the   same. In fact, while he was giving his all, I was doing nothing. In   this way, I failed him.

 

 

 

 Andrew J. Bacevich teaches history and international relations at   Boston University. His son died May 13 after a suicide bomb explosion   in Salah al-Din province.

 

 

 

Leave a comment