Someone Else's Child

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

June 20, 2005

It has become clearer than ever that Americans do not want to fight George W. Bush's tragically misguided war in Iraq.

You can still find plenty of folks arguing that we have to stay the course, or even raise the stakes by sending more troops to the war zone. But from the very start of this war the loudest of the flag-waving hawks were those who were safely beyond military age themselves and were unwilling to send their own children off to fight.

It's easy to be macho when you have nothing at risk. The hawks want the war to be fought with other people's children, while their own children go safely off to college, or to the mall. The number of influential American officials who have children in uniform in Iraq is minuscule.

Most Americans want no part of Mr. Bush's war, which is why Army recruiters are failing so miserably at meeting their monthly enlistment quotas. Desperate, the Army is lowering its standards, shortening tours, increasing bonuses and violating its own recruitment regulations and ethical guidelines.

Americans do not want to fight this war.

Times Square in Midtown Manhattan is the most heavily traveled intersection in the country. It was mobbed on V-E Day in May 1945 and was the scene of Alfred Eisenstaedt's legendary photo of a sailor passionately kissing a nurse on V-J Day the following August. There is currently an armed forces recruiting station in Times Square, but it's a pretty lonely outpost. An officer on duty one afternoon last week said no one had come in all day.

Vince Morrow, a 10th grader from Allentown, Pa., was interviewed across the street from the recruiting station, on Broadway. He said he had once planned to join the military after graduating from high school, but had changed his mind. "It's the war," he said. "Going over and never coming back. Before the war you'd just go to different places and help people. Now you go over there and you fight."

His mother, Michelle, said: "I'd like to see him around awhile. It was different before the war. It's the fear of not coming home. Our other son just graduated Saturday and he was planning to go into the Air Force. They told him college was included and made him all kinds of promises. They almost made him sign papers before we had decided. We thought about it and researched it and decided against it."

Last week's New York Times/CBS News Poll found that the mounting casualties and continuing turmoil in Iraq have made Americans increasingly pessimistic about the war. A majority said the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq and only 37 percent approved of the president's handling of the war.

What hasn't changed is the fact that the vast majority of the parents who support the war do not want their children to fight it. A woman in the affluent New York suburb of Ridgewood, N.J., who has a daughter in high school and a younger son, said: "I would not want my children to go. If there wasn't a war it would be different. I support the war and I think we need to be there. But it's not going well. It's becoming like Vietnam. It's a very bad situation. But we can't leave."

I don't know how you win a war that your country doesn't want to fight. We sent too few troops into Iraq in the first place and the number of warm bodies available for Iraq and other military missions going forward is dwindling alarmingly. The Bush crowd may be bellicose, but for most Americans the biggest contribution to the war effort is a bumper sticker that says "support our troops," and maybe a belligerent call to a talk radio station.

The home-front "warriors" who find it so easy to give the thumbs up to war endanger the truly valorous men and women who are actually willing to put on a uniform, pick up a weapon and place their lives on the line.

The president and these home-front warriors got us into this war and now they don't know how to get us out. Nor do they have a satisfactory answer to the important ethical question: how do you justify sending other people's children off to fight while keeping a cloak of protection around your own kids?

If the United States had a draft (for which there is no political sentiment), its warriors would be drawn from a much wider swath of the population, and political leaders would think much longer and harder before committing the country to war.