This month at the age of 92, Richard Strout departed these earthly precincts presumably for a better place. For the Christian Science Monitor, Dick Strout covered every American president from Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan. For the New Republic magazine from 1943 to 1983, Strout wrote the principal and influential TRB column. In his very first TRB piece at the height of the fighting in World War II, he urged the American leadership to define and explain our post-war goals. In words both timeless and now timely, Dick Strout wrote: "When a man dies, he wants to die for something important."
The time is now past for President Bush and the rest of what currently passes for American leadership to tell us and most of all those brave Americans prepared to fight and to die in the Persian Gulf what that "something important" is. The president made an earlier mention of threats posed to our "way of life." Surely as a former Republican party chairman, George Bush knows that in 1936 when FDR carried every state but Maine and Vermont against Republican Alf Landon that Landon's slogan was: "Save the American Way of Life." That could qualify as passable Fourth of July prose but not as coherent national policy.
Only a few weeks ago, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including this one, did not lose sleep over the fact that Saddam Hussein, a certified thug, held power. Americans knew that Saddam Hussein was not Saint Francis of Assisi, nor did they see him as Adolf Hitler, who, after all, led a powerful and successful nation and who had a realizable blueprint for world domination. Saddam Hussein's Iraq is incapable of feeding itself, has fewer people than the state of New York and with a population roughly the same as that of East Germany has a gross national product one-fifth the size of that beleaguered European state.
That President Bush's decisive action and willingness to project American power stopped Saddam Hussein from overwhelming Saudi Arabia will get no argument here. But what now are the post-war goals of the United States so important that our government is asking brave young Americans to die for them? With characteristic understatement and to his credit, the conservative California Republican, Rep. Robert Dornan, refused to elevate a reliable supply of cheap oil to high moral principle. Dornan, one of George Bush's earliest and most zealous endorsers, put it bluntly in Congressional Quarterly: "Americans don't die for princes, sultans and emirs. It will only be a matter of time before Republicans ask why American boys are fighting to defend one monarchy and restore another."
An American war in the Persian Gulf would be our nation's first without a declared moral premise. It will also be our first war without a military draft.
In 1990, the American establishment -- political, economic and journalistic -- has no personal stake in the armed forces of the United States. In proudly classless America, our nation's uniformed defenders now come overwhelmingly from America's working-class families. The American establishment lives in a different country from those Americans whose lives will end in Saudi Arabia.
In any war, most of the fighting and most of the dying are done by the youngest soldiers holding the lowest rank. In Vietnam, more than three out of four of the Americans killed there were enlisted men between the ages of 17 and 22 and under the rank of staff sergeant.
These are Americans who don't get invited to a Washington dinner party. Their fathers do not host fund-raisers for the president of the United States or sit on bank boards, nor are they syndicated columnists. When they die, their mothers who will cry at Arlington Cemetery and grieve for the rest of their lives will be good women who have never worn a designer original. These brave Americans do not have family trust funds, Roman numerals after their names or a summer place in Nantucket.
The crisis in the Persian Gulf, our leader has assured us, does not contemplate home-front shortages or rationing and imposes no civilian sacrifices. Vietnam, it will be recalled, made few Americans uncomfortable and no Americans poor. Of course, Vietnam did make more than 58,000 Americans dead.
Now before there are casualties and body bags and before there are brave young widows with babies in their arms, American leadership must define and explain our goals in this war because "when a man dies, he wants to die for something important."