Monday, February 09, 2004

Have Our Troops Died in Vain?
Do You Still Beat Your Campaign Manager?

Sunday on Late Edition, Wolf Blitzer interviewed both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. Both candidates pointed out, as they are wont to do, that Iraq posed no significant threat to the United States before the war. And in both interviews, Blitzer asked the same alarmingly terrible question:

So, are you saying that our troops died in vain?

Both Dean and Clark handled the question fairly well, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the question is sophistical in the extreme and should never be asked in such a context. It isn’t a loaded question like ‘Do you still beat your spouse?’, but it’s every bit as confused and confusing.

Obviously the idea at the core of this question is this: if you think that we have initiated a war unwisely or unjustly, then you must think that any of our soldiers who died in that war died in vain. But apparently no one (no Democrat, at any rate) is allowed to say or think that any of our soldiers have ever died in vain. This would entail that no one is allowed to say or think that we have ever undertaken a war unjustly or unwisely. This may be the handiest way to stifle dissent since the Alien and Sedition Acts…

This is an absurdity of biblical proportions and an absurdity that could have real impact on our public dialog about war. You might think that the question is so transparently sophistical that no one could possibly be fooled by it; in which case let me remind you that no one has ever gone broke—or lost an election—by underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Furthermore, despite the shrill charges from both ends of the political spectrum, I just can’t detect any significant political bias in Wolf Blitzer, no matter how paranoically I attend to his reports and interviews. And by all indications, he asked this question sincerely, apparently thinking that it was fair and cogent. If he clearly understood what he was asking, then he is either evil or bucking for a spot on Fox News. (Needless to say: inclusive ‘or’.) But there’s significant evidence against both of those conclusions. So I conclude that Blitzer was fooled by the question, even though he presumably had time to think about it before asking it. So even reasonably intelligent people can be fooled by the question, even after giving it a bit of thought.

Although Clark and Dean both handled it fairly well, that doesn’t mean that we should underestimate the damage this specious question might do. Neither answer was excellent, because there was necessarily an element of evasion in each of them. If this question were asked at a crucial time (say, during a debate) and of an unprepared candidate, the results could be disastrous.

Clark’s response was the better of the two, though it wasn’t strictly speaking correct. The core of his reply was the claim that a soldier’s duty is to do what his country asks of him, and that a soldier who does his duty never dies in vain. But this isn’t clearly true. I assert that soldiers can die in vain even when following orders, if those orders are sufficiently unjust. For example, it seems clear enough that German soldiers in WWII died in vain. In fact, if to die in vain is merely to die to no good purpose, then the deaths of soldiers who are prosecuting an unjust war do not even rise to the level of vanity. These are deaths not merely to no good purpose, but to bad purpose. Presumably it goes without saying that my point is not that the current war is comparable to German agression in WWII; rather, the point is that soldiers can die in vain even while doing their duty.

Have our soldiers in Iraq died in vain? I suspect not, but I just don’t know. But if so, this is not the fault of Wesley Clark or Howard Dean or any other person who points out that this war was, for us, an elective war. If Americans have died in vain, then this is the fault of those who made the decision to go to war and not the fault of those who decry the decision and lament the futility of the resultant deaths. And if so, then the last things the press should be doing is helping to obfuscate the issues and vilify those who are speaking truth to power in an effort to prevent more such deaths.

But this answer or any reasonably complete answer to Blitzer’s question does not fit into a sound byte. And so a candidate who is confronted with the question must, it seems, employ at least a bit of evasion and hope for the best. No responsible journalist who understands the complexity of this question and its potential for mischief would ask it--at least not without explaining its complexity to his audience. But Democrats had better be ready to answer it, nevertheless.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home