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Mark Shields: A long-overdue debate



WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Because the nation was at peace during my own time on active duty in the United States Marine Corps, I -- like every man I know -- have often wondered whether, faced with the terror and the horror of combat, my own courage and honor would have met the test and been affirmed. I can only hope so. I will never know.


What I do know is that I have been privileged during visits to Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Naval Hospital to spend time in the company of heroes.


These are the soldiers and the Marines, among the 4,340 in all, who have been seriously wounded since President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq. They have lost arms. They have lost legs. They have lost their sight. But not one of the wounded men and women whom I have been fortunate to meet has lost pride in his unit, his sacrifice or his mission.


Today, the honor and the sacrifice of those wounded Americans and their fallen comrades has been sullied and besmirched by the pictures and the loathsome actions they represent of American service personnel cruelly abusing Iraqis in their custody. We do not know whether these hateful acts were orchestrated or ordered by intelligence officials, military superiors or independent contractors.


What we do know for certain is that as a direct consequence of the offenses at Abu Ghraib prison, the tenuous moral authority of the American occupation of Iraq has been sabotaged, American soldiers and Marines in Iraq are today at even greater risk, and their wounded brothers and sisters at Walter Reed, Bethesda and every other military hospital will now live -- unjustly -- under an ugly cloud of suspicion.


Having been failed by a mostly cowardly and uncritical press and a mostly cowed Congress in the stampede to a pre-emptive war in Iraq, the nation now, much too late, struggles to debate whether this war and the way we chose to fight it were just or unjust. Here are a few questions we might ask.


If, as the conservative author Michael Barone has written, "War demands equality of sacrifice," how can the United States go to war when all the sacrifice and suffering are borne exclusively by the men and women in thn nation's military and their loved ones, and nothing at all is asked of the most prosperous and most privileged among us?


Do we believe that an army does not fight a war and that, instead, a country fights a war? And that unless the country's leaders openly asked for -- and the country's citizens willing agreed to -- sacrifice, that no war ever ought to be begun? When the nation decides to send troops into combat, then national defense truly becomes everyone's business and everyone's responsibility. Do we agree with the congressional testimony of Gen. John Vessey Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who acknowledged that the all-volunteer American military was created as a peacetime service: "In time of war, we know we will need compulsory military service (draft)"?


Is President Bush's message to the nation's most advantaged that others will serve and, 'You will pay no price, you will bear no burden'?


On April 23, 1971, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, a young naval veteran of Vietnam, stated eloquently: "We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"


How would Sen. John Kerry in 2004 -- or President John Kerry in 2005 -- answer that question about Iraq?


Its such a matter of convenience for some people who easily demand war knowing they wont have to give much up.

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