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As War Descends, Let’s Choose to Trust

What now? We’ve had our war debate. So how do we conduct ourselves during war?

I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to acknowledge my reservations. I’m going to say that I wish it hadn’t come to this; don’t we all? And more to the point, I wish President Bush had been more convincing in the run-up. I wish he could have matched his resolve with finesse. I wish he had made a better case for the invasion of Iraq right now. I wish he had been more forthright, more humble, more inspiring. I wish he had held us together, and our friends too. I wish he had cultivated more trust and less partisanship in his presidency.

In other words, I wish George W. Bush was a larger man than what he has shown.

And as he signals the beginning of this assault, I sound my voice to help him be so.

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I will not speak, or act, to make him smaller as the attack commences.

Time to choose.

As my friend Tim lights the burner on his Air Force F-16 and streaks into hostile Iraqi skies on the order of his commander in chief, my hopes will fly with him. Godspeed and good luck, captain.

Tim, you have held my daughter in your arms, as I have held yours. These two girls began their lives together in the same threadbare orphanage. Now you take sight of distant cities where other girls and their parents huddle in peril. About you, I have no reservations. You will do your best to bring down a tyrant without adding needlessly to the torment. And you need have no reservations about me.

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I believe that Bush has in mind a better world. The grinding, hidden civilian casualties caused by years of trying to contain Saddam Hussein have not proved an honorable or “peaceful” alternative. Bush could be right when he says that force now will give pause to those who have declared war upon us and those who are inclined to support them. He may also be right that a liberated Iraq could provide an example for self-determination in a region that has enjoyed little of it.

Can we be certain? Hardly. But we can be certain of this: A political uprising at home or by our erstwhile friends abroad will reduce whatever chance exists. Our enemies understand our weakness as well as our strength: that democracy, by its nature, means division -- and that political divisions can be exploited. In judo it’s called using the weight of an opponent against him.

I believe our contemporary history of timidity and our fitful attention span to boil-overs beyond our borders have given foes good reason to doubt our backbone. They suppose that our pluralistic, materialistic freedoms have corrupted us, sapped our resolve to fight for what we believe. They must surely hope to see proof of it in the days ahead.

Terrorists may strike back swiftly now. If so, their aim will be to turn Americans against the policies of the country. Wedge politics can work for outsiders too.

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It is naive, however, to think that the U.S. would be any safer had peace protesters or the French carried the day. Attacks on Americans have been too persistent as it is.

Yes, horrible things have occurred in the name of citizens marching in lock step behind their leaders. But horrible things have occurred when people turned their eyes from trouble. Time to choose. I’ll choose trust, because the alternative abets those who have sworn our destruction.

Some of the people I admire most believe it is the job of the press and thinking citizens to always question, to doubt, to challenge. Hear, hear. And among the doctrines to be questioned, doubted and challenged is the absolutism of that one. In my lifetime, Americans have perfected their skepticism and the ability to say no. Our capacity to say yes, or to grant others the possibility of being right, has atrophied.

That’s how I think. But in so uncertain and deadly an endeavor, we answer to our hearts, too. So I’ll tell you how I feel.

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I opened my old footlocker the other night. It is full of memories from the war of my youth. This chest is a shadow box, and it swallows up the brightest lights in the house. In Vietnam, 57,000 Americans were killed in a conflict that was ill conceived and wrongly executed. The toll of Vietnamese was perhaps 2.2 million.

I cannot endure the idea that this could happen again in my lifetime. I must wish the thought away. Close that footlocker. It is not indecent, but essential, to be optimistic about war. In many, many ways, the world is a better place today because people fought to make it so.


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