For this approaching Fourth of July, I take my cue from President Bush, who asked all of us, in his speech Tuesday night, "to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom by flying the flag" and doing other things, including "helping the military family down the street." I have always been a strong supporter of American troops, wherever they are, and I always fly the flag on the Fourth and Memorial Day.
But I would add my holiday thanks to the men and women of the press who are also taking risks to bring news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Americans back home. And I also tip my Uncle Sam hat to those journalists who perform their duty by continuing to probe the roots of the war against Iraq and informing us about the thinking of the civilian men and women who sent the uniformed men and women into it based on a number of official assertions that were not borne out by events.
I say this respectful of the enormous burdens on those charged with protecting this country in the uncertainties of the post-Sept. 11 world, but also respectful of the importance in a democracy of knowing as much as we can about how the country is taken to war.
The Fourth of July always moves me, and so this is a personal column, not driven by reader complaints or observations. I like to think about the country, its history and spirit, the strength it draws from its devotion to independence and individuals, and the importance of openness to its democracy.
I also have always thought a lot about how the nation defends itself. This probably goes back to World War II, when, as a youngster, I would follow the war on a map and sometimes accompany my uncle on his rounds as a volunteer air raid warden in our Bronx neighborhood, blowing our whistles at apartments where the shades were not drawn and scanning the skies for German planes from our apartment house rooftop.
Later came four years as a Navy officer and 45 years as a journalist, many of them involved with national security coverage. I would describe myself as something of a hard-liner when it comes to military preparedness. I think, for example, that right now the Army is too small to handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone another emergency that could come along.
But there are a couple of special things I have watched and learned over the years, especially as a reporter.
One is that the burden and shared sacrifice of serving in wartime, or even in peacetime, has shrunk to the tiniest fraction of Americans. The fact is that there aren't many "military families down the street." This is not a call to reinstate the draft, but the detachment of the overwhelming number of Americans from any need to sacrifice anything while a war goes on seems like an interesting subject when we study how decisions are made to take the country to war.
Another is that while nothing comes close to the sacrifices of front-line troops and their families, the press also is -- or can and should be -- an important factor in our security by keeping us informed beyond what the government chooses to tell us.
And another is that some of the people who wave the flag most forcefully on July 4, people we normally associate with the nation's security, sometimes don't do a very good job of guarding it.
Over these past 45 years, it hasn't been hard to find painful examples of defense contractors who piled up huge cost overruns on weapons systems or military contracts, of flag-waving lawmakers who loaded up their districts with as much defense pork as they could gather and who pressed into budgets expensive purchases that the military hadn't asked for. There were also examples of government and industry officials who didn't crack down on the waste of billions of dollars, of weapons that didn't perform as advertised, and of civilian and military commanders who didn't level with their superiors or the public about their real assessments of conflicts. There were politicians who sought to use national security to cover up scandals and embarrassments. There were intelligence officials who missed the big and important calls, or kept quiet when they knew better, and others who seized on that intelligence.
The press, at times, also hasn't done a very good job, whether it was failing to probe more forcefully the disputed Tonkin Gulf episode in the waters off Vietnam in 1964, which opened the gates for a full-fledged escalation of that war by a Democratic president, or the assertions about weapons of mass destruction and other assessments that provided the public rationale for a Republican president to go to war in Iraq.
Nevertheless, a free and questioning press, free also to make the occasional mistake, remains a crucial part of the checks and balances that help define American democracy.
I can't remember a time, however, when that particular check-and-balance has been more challenged than it is now. The press is under assault by armies of ideologues and political activists on all sides who seek to undermine its credibility whenever it is in their interest to do so. It is threatened by legal proceedings against more reporters than ever before for protecting sources, and dismissed by a growing chunk of the population that thinks it can get all it needs to know on Internet blogs.
To be sure, part of the threat comes from journalists' own mistakes and failings, from timidity within some news organizations and politicization within others, from some managers who worry more about short-term profit than news, and from technological and societal changes that are shrinking circulation and viewership within much of what is called the mainstream media. But we all will be in deeper trouble, and less secure, if the press and its watchdog role are diminished in the eyes of the public.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.