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The Other Guy's Sacrifice

By Richard Cohen
Friday, June 24, 2005

The late John Gregory Dunne -- novelist, essayist, screenwriter -- was my friend. For a year or two around 1990, though, he wouldn't have anything to do with me. I found this out the hard way by inviting him to dinner. He wouldn't come, he said, and when he asked if I wanted to know why, he told me flat out: I was a hypocrite.

The proof of my hypocrisy was my support of the looming Gulf War. I wanted Iraq out of Kuwait, and I wanted Saddam Hussein dealt with. But when Dunne asked me if I wanted these things badly enough that I would want my own son to fight in the upcoming war, I said no -- I would leave that to others. If this be hypocrisy, then I am a hypocrite.

In the end, Dunne and I resumed our relationship, but I never really knew what to make of his criticism. I thought that he had something of a point. But I also saw limited war the way I see a fire or a bank holdup or some such thing. We call on cops or firefighters to risk their lives to do what we are not willing or able to do ourselves. This is their task, and sometimes it costs them their lives.

As far as I was concerned, my firefighter-police officer analogy held for the Iraq war also -- at least until I concluded that the war itself was a mistake. Until that moment, I had thought that getting rid of Hussein was a dandy idea, especially since he was purportedly armed with hideous weapons of mass destruction. We now know they did not exist -- although they once did -- and neither did his alleged ties to al Qaeda. Still, Hussein is gone. "Was it not worth at least some sacrifice to remove such a man from power?"

The quote is from a June 19 Post op-ed by Robert Kagan, one of the most thoughtful and influential of the pro-war foreign policy intellectuals. I read that sentence with the eyes of my late friend. I know Dunne would have pounced on it, clipped it from the paper and called someone to ask precisely who or what Kagan was willing to "sacrifice." It is not likely to be anyone Kagan knows, since middle-aged Yale graduates are not likely to have friends in the National Guard or children hankering to join the Marines. Even the Vietnam War, with a draft that initially managed to catch mostly the poor, cast a more egalitarian net than this one.

So when Kagan and others talk about "sacrifice," what do they mean? They mean the other guy. This is not actually something new under the sun -- older men have forever sent younger men to war -- but this war is a category unto itself. It's not just that there is no draft -- and none contemplated -- but also that taxes have not been raised and we're not even asked to save paper or aluminum foil or something like that for the war effort. The war is being conducted out there, on television, and although U.S. fatalities are creeping toward 2,000, they are nothing like the numbers from Vietnam (58,000). The sacrificing can continue for years before most of us are asked to sacrifice a thing.

Dunne's rebuke hectors me, and I simply have been unable to reconcile his position with what I think are the realities of power politics. But I nonetheless find myself studying the mini-profiles of the dead and noting those who were young and those who were not so young -- the enlistees and the reservists, the career guys (and gals) and the short-timers. Many in every category were seeking some vocational training or some spending money or the chance to go to college. (No recruiter emphasizes the chance of getting killed.) The hard truth is that for a lot of enlistees, if they had had more cash in their pockets, they would now be doing something else.

Dunne liked to refer to "sunshine patriots" -- those of us who called for others to fight a war we or our children would never fight. This war was conceived by sunshine patriots and directed by them -- and fought for reasons that some in the administration knew were exaggerations or, in some cases (Dick Cheney's nuclear scare-mongering), sheer fabrications. It has become the sorriest of wars, conceived for one reason, fought for another, good enough for others to fight, not good enough for ourselves and, maybe, an awful quagmire in the making. It's time the sunshine patriots looked outside.

It's raining.

cohenr@washpost.com

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