The Lives on the Line

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, January 15, 2007

Who's using the troops for political purposes? Who isn't might be your first reaction if you followed last week's teapot tempest featuring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee pummeling of Rice at a hearing Thursday, Boxer lectured, "You're not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families. And I just want to bring us back to that fact."

The White House, which looks more desperate every time it tries to manufacture another outrage, pounced on Boxer for what spokesman Tony Snow called"a great leap backward for feminism." In an interview with the New York Times, Rice chimed in: "I thought it was okay to be single."

But Boxer wasn't attacking Rice for being single or childless. After all, she began by saying, "Who pays the price? I'm not going to pay a personal price. My kids are too old and my grandchild is too young."

Boxer, in other words, was repackaging the familiar chicken-hawk attack. At its most elemental, this is the charge that President Bush and his associates were too cowardly to fight in Vietnam and now, while their own children choose not to serve, are cavalier in risking the lives of others.

It's a line of attack that can lead to fair and troubling questions. As the professional military becomes more isolated from the nation's governing elite -- or the other way around -- do our leaders have sufficient appreciation of the horror and unpredictability of war? What role should empathy for the individual soldier play in the gut-wrenching decisions of a wartime leader?

But the chicken-hawk attack can lead in unfair and dangerous directions, too. Surely childlessness does not keep Rice from feeling the burden of American losses in Iraq. And surely war opponents do not want to live in a country where decisions about war and peace must be left exclusively to those who have experienced war -- to generals and veterans and their families.

The truth is, every side in the war debate uses the troops for political gain. When Bush tearfully presents the Medal of Honor to the family of a slain war hero the morning after announcing his latest strategy for Iraq, then flies off to Fort Benning, he is using the troops as props. Democrats didn't make the absence of body armor a key campaign issue until they had done a lot of poll-testing.

The further truth is, we wouldn't have it any other way. The troops, their welfare, their views, their morale, the casualty count -- all that must be part of the war debate. As to the germaneness of the president's tears or Barbara Boxer's outrage, Americans can form their own judgments.

It matters, though, that we not allow the troops to serve only as props and political fodder -- that we keep in our minds the real people in Iraq and Afghanistan who, while we argue, are without interruption fighting, sweating, building, patrolling, dying. What matters is to remember that the White House ceremony Thursday morning wasn't just part of a campaign but was also a tribute to a real person: Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, who, on April 14, 2004, at the age of 22, in a dusty town near the Syrian border, threw his helmet over a live grenade, and then his body over the helmet, and thus absorbed a blow that three nearby comrades therefore survived.

You can read about Cpl. Dunham, and about a lot of other heroes, in a National Journal cover story this week titled " The Other Three Thousand" ( http://www.nationaljournal.com). The article, by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., points out that the media, and even the military, have devoted more attention in this war to the 3,000-plus who have died than to the 3,000-plus who have been awarded medals for valor.

The lists overlap, as in Dunham's case, but most of the awardees are still alive. They are people such as Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Stone, who on Feb. 21, 2005, curled himself around a wounded comrade to protect him from an expected insurgent's blast. "If it goes off, you're going to be okay," Stone told him. "Hug your wife and kids, and don't ever forget me."

It didn't, and both were rescued. Stone remains in uniform today.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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