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Is support for our troops conditional?

James Lileks Newhouse News Service

Making John Kerry commander in chief would be like making Louis Farrakhan the ambassador to Israel. At least that’s the opinion of several scores of military commanders and other soldiers, all of whom have signed a damning letter critical of Kerry’s approach to national defense.

Cue the predictable howls: You can’t question his patriotism! Well, no one did. They just questioned his judgment. Ralph Nader would be a bad CinC; he’d make the Army redesign the tanks to run on solar power and demand that unmanned Predators be piloted to create jobs. Dennis Kucinich would be a wretched CinC; he’d send the Navy to sail into foreign ports and use the big guns to shoot flowers and stuffed animals into hostile territory. Pat Buchanan would deploy the entire infantry on the Mexican border with orders to shoot anyone darker than a grocery bag — bad CinC. Yet each of these men in his own curious way is a patriot, inasmuch as he wants the best for America. They just have unusual definitions of what’s best.

Kerry’s supporters find proof of his patriotism in his Vietnam service, but this forces Democrats to describe the war in terms one hasn’t found on the left since John F. Kennedy’s day. As Dick Durbin, D-Ill., put it the other day on the Senate floor: “John Kerry led men into battle. He defended America.”

Wait a minute. Hold on. So it’s now accepted wisdom on the left that the Vietnam War was conducted in the defense of the United States? Interesting. Nice to know they’ve come around to realize it was part of a battle against Communism. (You remember Communism. It was in all the papers.) Vietnam wasn’t the long twilight-struggle part, this was the broad-daylight-struggle portion of the Cold War. But didn’t the left view Vietnam as a racist, atrocity-packed, misguided intervention in a civil war? Can it be all those bad things and still be considered to be a defensive act?

Apparently so. Maybe in 30 years the left will have a similar epiphany about Iraq.

Which brings us to the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. Some insist you have to serve before you can have an opinion on military matters. Otherwise you’re a Chickenhawk. Does this mean you’re a Chickenjudge if you criticize the miscreants who abused the prisoners? Probably. Who cares? We can all agree that the idiots who abused these prisoners should stand trial, and if they’re guilty, make them swap the uniform they disgraced for one with black and white stripes. Here’s your hammer; there’s the rock pile. Five years or five tons of pebbles, whichever comes first.

But there we go again, questioning their patriotism.

Doesn’t that seem like an utterly irrelevant accusation now? Sure. And it’s as meaningless as another hoary trope of the left: “We Support the Troops.” “Support” was always conditional, and defined rather narrowly: It meant “bring them home as soon as possible, and in the meantime send happy be-safe mind-beams in their direction.” It’s difficult to support the troops and oppose the mission. Do the people who opposed the war but supported the troops support the troops who just flushed America’s reputation down the commode? Of course not. A more accurate slogan would be “We Support Some Troops Performing a Limited Set of Non-Violent Objectives,” but it makes a lousy bumper sticker. And it makes you look less, well, patriotic.

We’ve become so mired in these cliches that we are losing sight of the goal: victory. The withdrawal from Fallujah may have strategic wisdom, but it feels wrong. The misdeeds of the prison guards make us suspect we’ve ceded all possible claims to the moral high ground — indeed, to some our moral high ground looks like Tora Bora. At home, the inanities of the presidential campaign seem like a diversion from the war, not a clarification of the struggle we face.

It may take a hard right cross to the jaw to focus our attention on the job. And yet you think: Pray it never comes.

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