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A hawk to admire

War forces us, or should force us, to ask hard questions of ourselves. As a military historian, a commentator on current events and the father of a young Army officer, these are mine.

So begins an opinion piece titled "A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War" in last Sunday's Washington Post by Eliot Cohen. The first question he asks himself is, "If you had known then [when the Iraq war was launched in 2003] what you know now would you still have been in favor of it?" His answer is a hestitating yes, and he believes that Iraq will "become [something like] a state that makes room for the various confessions and communities that constitute it, that has reasonably open and free politics, and that chooses a path to a future that could inspire other changes in the Arab Middle East." I am not so optimistic.

Things are never as simple as most political arguments make them seem. The doubts Mr Cohen expresses lead me to assume that he is a reasonable and well-intentioned human being, and not your usual right-wing pundit.

The Bush Administration did itself a disservice by resting much of its case for war on Iraq's actual possession of weapons of mass destruction. The true arguments for war reached deeper than that.

He lists some. I certainly agree with his conclusion that we failed with our policy towards Iraq in the preceding decade — "[it] fed the outrage of the jihadis with whom we are in a war that will last a generation or more" — and towards the Middle East for much longer than that — "relying on accommodating thugs and kleptocrats to maintain order...; it was the well-educated children of our client regimes who leveled the Twin Towers, after all."

He doesn't convince me that going to war was right. He does remind me, however, that we can't go back and change the fact that we did. While I am strongly tempted to advocate the immediate removal of all our troops and support as the only reasonable form of making amends for the sins of our past, I simply cannot bring myself to do so. I fear that pulling out would lead to more death, more repression and more hatred than some other alternative. I'm not quite sure what that alternative is. The turnout for Iraq's elections last January demonstrated quite clearly that there is a huge contingent of support for a liberal, free and democratic Iraq. We must do what we can to that end.

Your son is an infantry officer, shipping out soon for Iraq. How do you feel about that?

This is Mr Cohen's last question for himself and his answer reveals bitterness and anger about the conduct of this war, a bitterness and anger that I fully share.

A variety of emotions wash over me as I reflect on our Iraq war: Disbelief at the length of time it took to call an insurgency by its name. Alarm at our continuing failure to promote at wartime speed the colonels and generals who have a talent for fighting it, while also failing to sweep aside those who do not. Incredulity at seeing decorations pinned on the chests and promotions on the shoulders of senior leaders -- both civilians and military -- who had the helm when things went badly wrong. Disdain for the general who thinks Job One is simply whacking the bad guys and who, ever conscious of public relations, cannot admit that American soldiers have tortured prisoners or, in panic, killed innocent civilians. Contempt for the ghoulish glee of some who think they were right in opposing the war, and for the blithe disregard of the bungles by some who think they were right in favoring it. A desire — barely controlled — to slap the highly educated fool who, having no soldier friends or family, once explained to me that mistakes happen in all wars, and that the casualties are not really all that high and that I really shouldn't get exercised about them.

I cannot argue with the substance of his conclusion. I do not share in his expectation of the outcome. I wish I had enough faith left that I did.

There is a lot of talk these days about shaky public support for the war. That is not really the issue. Nor should cheerleading, as opposed to truth-telling, be our leaders' chief concern. If we fail in Iraq — and I don't think we will — it won't be because the American people lack heart, but because leaders and institutions have failed. Rather than fretting about support at home, let them show themselves dedicated to waging and winning a strange kind of war and describing it as it is, candidly and in detail. Then the American people will give them all the support they need. The scholar in me is not surprised when our leaders blunder, although the pundit in me is dismayed when they do. What the father in me expects from our leaders is, simply, the truth — an end to happy talk and denials of error, and a seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight.

Sadly, the truth is the main thing that's been missing in the governance of this great nation since before I became old enough to vote. My mother says it began when Eisenhower lied during the U-2 incident of 1960. It was certainly in full swing by the time of the War on Vietnam and the Nixon presidency.

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