Not convinced by son with a mission

October 03, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Of all the words used in the run-up-to-war rhetoric, what stays in my mind is the time the president got personal. At a Houston fund-raiser, he described Saddam Hussein as "a guy that tried to kill my dad."

It wasn't the first time he'd mentioned the assassination attempt. At the United Nations, he'd said that the Iraqi leader had tried to kill "a former American president." But this time it was the son talking about his "dad."

I won't read a family vendetta into one straight-from-the-gut phrase. I don't believe that the president is planning the Bush-Hatfields against the Hussein-McCoys.

But I think there is something in this son's ardent desire to lead the country into war that has to do with the father and the son, with the greatest generation and the baby-boom generation. With a son who sees himself picking up the baton, and defining this war as his destiny.

George Bush the Elder fought in World War II. George Bush the Younger joined the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. As an adult, Dubya was often described as a good ol' boy or a frat boy. As a candidate he was likable and lite. As a president he was elected with a minority of votes.

Sept. 11, 2001, was the most sober day in his life -- as it was in ours. The United States was attacked on George W. Bush's watch. Life doesn't get much more serious, much more grown-up than that. If there was ever a moment when the responsibility and the burden shifted onto his shoulders -- shoulders that had often shrugged -- it was that day.

I hadn't voted for him but I rooted for him. When Mr. Bush spoke to the nation after the attacks, I prayed that he was up to the job. And he was.

Now when I reread the speech, a few sentences jump out at me. "We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment," he said. "Our nation -- our generation -- will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future."

"Our mission." "Our generation." The father flew 58 combat missions over the Pacific as a young man. The boomer son found his mission -- and his moment -- in the war on terrorism.

Last year, George W. Bush's mission was ours -- one and the same. The attack on al-Qaida, the war against the Taliban, were fought on deep moral principles. We were attacked and we acted in self-defense.

I was never comfortable with the language of the presidential missionary. I didn't like talk of "evildoers," though I believe the terrorists were evil. It evoked an apocalyptic view in which God and Satan were contending for the world and the godly people were justified in doing anything to Satan's people. That seemed like the vocabulary of terrorists, not Americans.

But it was a just war, and the world was with us.

Then the evildoer Osama bin Laden morphed into Saddam Hussein. The enemy evolved from an international band of terrorists who attacked us into a nation that could, wants to, someday, maybe, attack us. The moral argument also switched from self-defense to pre-emptive war to preventive war -- which is difficult to separate from simple aggression.

The universal principle has become a unilateral principle.

In his radio speech Saturday, the president said flatly, "We refuse to live in this future of fear." Without proof of an imminent threat, fear is now the justification for war. And if this president thinks his mission is eliminating a "future of fear," where does that end?

In the switch from Osama to Saddam, from self-defense to "prevention," "our war" is becoming "his war." This is where I become wary of a son with a mission.

Listening, I hear a man who believes that he is finally facing the test passed by his elders: the test of war. And while I detest the pejorative "chicken hawk," I can't help noting how many of the pro-warriors in the administration, those who believe that war is not hell but the solution, never fought in one.

Dwight Eisenhower once said, "When you resorted to force ... you didn't know where you were going. If you got deeper and deeper, there was just no limit except the limitations of force itself."

Mr. Hussein is the guy who "tried to kill my dad." He is without doubt a brutal, maybe mad, man. But the question isn't about our dads. It's about our sons and daughters.

Is this a just war? A necessary one? Would you send your sons and daughters into Iraq today, and without allies? The case has yet to be made.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at

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