To the president from a father: Shame on us
FOR TWO GUYS about the same age, George W. Bush and I do not have much in common. There are, however, two realities we do share: His daughter Barbara and my son Michael both attend Yale. And neither one is about to join the United States armed forces in Iraq. Why not?
Because they don't have to, they don't want to, and George W. and I won't let them.
One of those "flaming liberals" for which Massachusetts is famous asked me, "Why are people not taking to the streets every day protesting the Iraq war like we did in the '60s?" As I thought about it, the answer is simple. The Iraq war is not being fought, for the most part, by the children of the affluent or even affluent-hopefuls. And that is because it's not being fought by the conscripted.
Vietnam-era protest rules do not apply. There are no chants outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. of "Hell, no, we won't go." There are no draft classifications like 1-A or 4-F or student deferments. There is no threat that after next week's Yale graduation, the baby boom generation's kids will involuntarily be sent to places like Fort Dix, Parris Island, or Camp Pendleton.
This is a war of volunteer US combatants and National Guard "weekend warriors" who are trying to figure out how a monthly training exercise turned into a living hell. Patriots, one and all, and they should be lauded for their courage. But they shouldn't be there any more than Michael and Barbara should be.
When Barbara's grandfather, George Bush senior, decided in 1991 not to continue the Gulf War into Baghdad, he was roundly criticized for being a "coward."
In the end, he was right. He knew that there was a reason not to occupy a country for a prolonged period in an attempt to simultaneously toss out a dictator, find weapons of mass destruction, police the country, establish a new democratic government, and stabilize the entire region. He knew that it could not all be accomplished and that the endeavor would soon become quicksand in the desert.
While I have not discussed it with either of them, I suspect that deep down, Barbara and Michael agree with Bush senior. This might explain why we will not see either one rushing down to the local Army recruiter in the coming weeks, hoping to be patrolling a war-torn, insurgent-infested Baghdad neighborhood as soon as possible. I bet their answer to the question of "Why not?" would be a Muhammad Ali-like, "I got no quarrel with them Iraqis."
Now comes the hard part: why George W. and I wouldn't let them go even if they did want to. Of course, they are both over 21 and able to make their own decisions, but in both cases, their dads would surely fight any eagerness to join up. No parent wants to bury a child -- let alone endorse a course that could well make that a grisly reality.
This war is a mistake -- a big mistake. The rest of the world knows it, and in our hearts, so do we. In World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, rich kids, poor kids, college kids, and dropouts all went. They all fought, and hundreds of thousands died. This time it is mainly the poor kids leaving on those planes and coming home in boxes. Most parents whose children have other options will not allow them to go.
That's why the president is able to press on: All he has at risk personally is his presidency, not his children. That's why I am not organizing protests and why the rest of us are not outraged at every turn. This war has no personal consequences for most of us who as '60s peaceniks changed the world. Shame on us, both of us -- all of us.
John Kerry was right when he said it in 1971, and he would be wise to take a stand now and say it again: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Mr. President, as this semester ends at Yale, I won't ask Michael to die for a mistake. Are you going to ask that of Barbara?
David F. D'Alessandro is chairman and chief executive officer of John Hancock Financial Services.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.