Children's crusade

December 12, 2005

In 1965 a California jug band player borrowed the melody of "Muskrat Ramble," an old jazz standard by a legendary New Orleans trombonist named Kid Ory, and fashioned it into "Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag." The chorus starts this way:

"And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?

Don't ask me I don't give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam ... "

That war was in its early days back then; songwriter Country Joe McDonald was hardly a mainstream figure when he plucked out the first cheerful chords. But nearly three years later - or, as it happens, over a period of time that just about matches the current American project in Iraq - an intense and spreading doubt over what it was that the United States was actually still trying (so unsuccessfully) to achieve in Vietnam was waiting only for a respectable and national means of expression. And then along came Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, of Minnesota, who launched a campaign for president because he thought that was the likeliest way to bring Washington to its senses.

Millions flocked to his cause. He enraged Democratic Party regulars who thought that in his vanity he would destroy the party. He irritated followers of Robert F. Kennedy who were amazed he didn't understand that he should step out of the way once a Kennedy had entered the ring. And in the end he let down many of his own enthusiasts because he surmised that he could never actually win the White House, and acted accordingly.

Senator McCarthy, who died Saturday, was a rare politician for any era, but 1968 needed him. Prickly, witty, diffident, he thought the war was dangerous because it was destroying faith in the American system.

"We must raise the essential moral question," he said, "as to whether or not there is a proper balance in what we may gain in what is projected as victory, in contrast with the loss of life, the loss of material goods, the loss of moral integrity and moral energy which goes with the effort. The answer, I think, is that there is not."

Whatever we were fighting for, in other words, it wasn't worth it.

The war in Vietnam dragged on, but after 1968 its unpopularity, though unprecedented, was a given. Today America is fighting another war of uncertain purpose. The loss of life and the loss of material goods in Iraq are not so costly as in Vietnam days, as painful as they are. But the loss of what Senator McCarthy called moral integrity and moral energy is if anything worse now than it was in 1968, and the eventual cost is incalculable. America awaits its McCarthy moment.

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