On an encounter with some Patriot missiles

March 30, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Ever look back on an unsettling dialogue and think of something meaningful you could have said, but didn't?

It happens to me all the time. I think I'm better at writing than at talking. Slow brain function, I guess.

For that reason, I hate public speaking engagements and rarely accept them. Last week I did accept one because an old friend and colleague had asked me to speak to a group of retirees who meet for lunch a few times a year.

"What will you talk about?" he asked me before I was introduced.

"Oh, I'll probably tell a couple of newspaper stories and talk about the war," said I.

"That's good," said my host.

Wrong!

I did tell a couple of stories, which I thought were amusing, but didn't get much of a laugh.

Then I started talking about the war against Iraq, which I have opposed. I noted that the war was not going as quickly or as easily as the Bush administration had led Americans to believe and that more unhappy surprises may lie ahead.

This was too much for one retiree, who rose and demanded to know what made me think I knew more or better than the president of the United States.

I do not recall my response, but surely it was not clever. My taunter, who seemed to have support in the crowd, stomped out of the room.

So I resumed.

Then another man walked up to the podium, pointed at me and accused me of being a communist. He, too, stomped out. A dozen or so others followed. Communist? I wondered what he had in mind.

Foolishly, I continued, hoping all the Patriot missiles had left.

But no.

Another man erupted, supported by a smattering of applause, saying that Saddam Hussein had been given 12 years to obey the international community's demands that he disarm and he had refused. What did I propose? More time?

Yes, I said, more time.

Ugh.

I know these sentiments in support of the war and the president exist in America. They are widespread, probably the majority, and understandably grew stronger when the fighting started. They spring from national pride, the conviction that America is good and therefore what its government does is good. If the president of the United States says America must go to war to defeat a tyrant like Hussein, it must be so.

I also know there are strong voices on the right, on radio and television, whipping up the passions of Americans in support of the war, nurtured in some quarters by the conviction that God blesses this noble enterprise. And that those opposing it must be godless, uh, communists.

Calls and letters come in to the newspaper expressing these views. But I have never had someone who holds them get in my face like that.

Now that I've thought about these questions, though, I do have some answers.

One is that I would not say I know more than the president of the United States. His resources for information are vast. What he does with that information and how it is shared with America and the world in presenting a case for war against Iraq are another matter.

Here's what he knows and we all know: He and his top people led us to believe this war was going to be a lot easier than it is turning out to be. He and his people suggested the Iraqi masses would join American forces to overthrow Saddam Hussein and they have not. He and his people said they had enough fighters and equipment on hand to start an invasion, and now they need more. He and his people raised expectations that have not been fulfilled. He has taken America to a dangerous place without telling people, now, how much it will really cost and how long it will last. Why? I fear it may be because he does not know.

As for whether it would have been worth it to give more time to see if the inspections would work in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, I do believe so. Not an eternity, for the threat of lethal punishment for Hussein would diminish. But more time, yes.

Twelve years has been a long time. Another twelve weeks might have helped; the weapons inspectors seemed to think it might. So do some of our most long-standing allies. Consider that in those 12 years, not a single American or Briton died because of Hussein.

As I write, it has been less than 12 days since the war began. At least 28 Americans have been killed, seven have been captured and 16 are missing. Britain has lost 22 fighters. Their families may have wished for more time. No one can say for certain how many innocent Iraqis have been killed.

If forces of history, instead of the military, had been allowed to remove Hussein, as they did the communist dictators, certainly the world would be better off.

By the way, I am not a communist. I didn't know there were any left.

Interestingly, the group I spoke to last week were retirees from this newspaper. Most of them were not from the newsroom, but they are proud to have worked here. They had been printers, electricians, or worked in advertising, circulation or the business office. Without their work, the newspaper would not have been published. They knew that, even if the reporters and editors did not.

Printers have always impressed me, from the time I began here and the newspaper was printed from hot lead type. Day in and day out, they set the type for news and opinion articles that may have enraged them, but none had raised an objection to me when I was among them; nor did the ad salespeople or circulation boosters.

Until last week, that is. Then they gave me hell.

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