Support our troops, and right to dissent

March 21, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Now that the bombs are falling on Iraq, there can be no question that full support at home is due the American troops in the field, in the air and at sea implementing President Bush's policy to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and end the reign of Saddam Hussein.

Whatever one thinks of his decision to launch a preventive war at this time in the face of heavy disagreement outside our own borders, all Americans obviously must hope for a swift and successful outcome that will minimize casualties among our armed forces and those of our fighting allies, the British.

For our own sake as well, we must hope for minimal casualties among the Iraqi populace, not only for humanitarian reasons but also to give credibility to the president's assurances that great care will be taken to focus our assault on the Iraqi dictator and his most lethal weapons.

A mistake made too often by protesters at home during the war in Vietnam was to demean the American servicemen and women carrying out the policy when they had nothing to do with setting it; it was the responsibility of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

This time, the American combatants warrant respect as they do what they were sent to the Persian Gulf to do.

Members of Congress, too, must and no doubt will provide the funds needed to equip and safeguard them, even as some - Republican as well as Democratic - deplore the president's unwillingness to level with them before the shooting started about the immense costs involved and what they will mean to critical needs at home.

President Bush's authority as commander in chief of the armed forces cannot be challenged, either, any more than the constitutional legality of his 2000 election to office, regardless of lingering frustrations among Democrats about the manner in which that legality was achieved.

Beyond that, the public opinion polls, as expected in time of national crisis, show a notable increase in the American people's support of the president personally and his war policy. This is in sharp contrast to public sentiment abroad, even in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair's solidarity with Mr. Bush may be imperiling his own political future.

The onset of the war and American support for it, however, need not silence legitimate questions at home about the wisdom of initiating hostilities before international solidarity was achieved.

Nor does the start of the conflict suspend the right, or the obligation, of Americans to question and challenge the new Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war to prevent possible threats down the road.

At a time when the government is imposing almost unprecedented restrictions on certain civil liberties and detentions in the name of homeland security, it is all the more important that voices of responsible dissent be heard.

Patriotism in a democracy is not only demonstrated by saluting the flag and not burning it but also by openly taking issue with official government policies and actions that any citizen believes to be detrimental to national purposes and ideals.

Saying so no doubt invites allegations from some of being anti-American, pro-Communist or, especially ludicrously in this instance, even pro-Saddam Hussein. But freedom of speech allows them as well, even one e-mail just in from a reader that says: "You should be taken out and shot for treason."

Another reader, while deploring "the unprecedented pre-emptive invasion of Iraq," has it right in e-mailing: "Our right to dissent is so basically important that I cannot fault the negative mail you receive about your column content no matter how loathsome some comments may be."

So the war begins, with support in this corner always for the men and women risking their lives and their quest for military success without surrendering the right and need to question the policy that obliges them to do so.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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