Webb: Republicans Should Stop Attacking Vets
Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, James Webb, issues some excellent advice to the Republican Party in a somewhat over-the-top op-ed in today’s New York Times: Stop demeaning the military service of your opponents.
It should come as no surprise that an arch-conservative Web site is questioning whether Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has been critical of the war in Iraq, deserved the combat awards he received in Vietnam. After all, in recent years extremist Republican operatives have inverted a longstanding principle: that our combat veterans be accorded a place of honor in political circles. This trend began with the ugly insinuations leveled at Senator John McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries and continued with the slurs against Senators Max Cleland and John Kerry, and now Mr. Murtha.
Military people past and present have good reason to wonder if the current administration truly values their service beyond its immediate effect on its battlefield of choice. The casting of suspicion and doubt about the actions of veterans who have run against President Bush or opposed his policies has been a constant theme of his career. This pattern of denigrating the service of those with whom they disagree risks cheapening the public’s appreciation of what it means to serve, and in the long term may hurt the Republicans themselves.
Not unlike the Clinton “triangulation” strategy, the approach has been to attack an opponent’s greatest perceived strength in order to diminish his overall credibility. To no one’s surprise, surrogates carry out the attacks, leaving President Bush and other Republican leaders to benefit from the results while publicly distancing themselves from the actual remarks.
During the 2000 primary season, John McCain’s life-defining experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam were diminished through whispers that he was too scarred by those years to handle the emotional burdens of the presidency. The wide admiration that Senator Max Cleland gained from building a career despite losing three limbs in Vietnam brought on the smug non sequitur from critics that he had been injured in an accident and not by enemy fire. John Kerry’s voluntary combat duty was systematically diminished by the well-financed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in a highly successful effort to insulate a president who avoided having to go to war.
And now comes Jack Murtha. The administration tried a number of times to derail the congressman’s criticism of the Iraq war, including a largely ineffective effort to get senior military officials to publicly rebuke him (Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was the only one to do the administration’s bidding there).
I agree with Mackubin Thomas Owens and Kathryn Jean Lopez that Webb is a genuine hero who deserves to be taken seriously and that his advice is spot-on. I do, however, have a major problem with the piece: He engages in the very sort of ad hominem that he enveighs against.
What evidence does he have that the Bush administration doesn’t value the service of our veterans? Surely, allowing the service records of his opponents–who are using their service as their trump card–is not enough.
Yes, there was some “whispering” that McCain was a bit off his rocker during the 2000 campaign. There are some awful things “whispered” on both sides of any serious political campaign. I don’t like it one bit but that’s the nature of the game. Who started the whispering? Was it Bush? Where’s the evidence?
As to Max Cleland’s injuries, the only one that I know of who made an issue of the way they came about was Ann Coulter. She was, it turns out, right on the facts and wrong on the analysis. That he lost the use of his legs and an arm owing to a horrible accident getting off a helicopter doesn’t diminish that he did so serving honorably in Vietnam.
The flap over Kerry’s medals was unfortunate, as it detracted from what I always believed was the Swift Boat Veterans’ strongest suit: Kerry’s contemptible conduct toward his fellow veterans upon his return stateside. I always maintained, however, that the awards were legitimate in the context of the Navy’s standards and practices of the time. So far as I know, the Bush camp went out of their way to say that Kerry was a hero time and again.
The president asking his senior officers to rebut criticisms of an ongoing war? Well, one would hope so. If it’s worth sending men into harm’s way, it’s certainly worth sending their commanders out to defend verbally. Did Bush ask them to question Murtha’s honor or service? No.
The most insidious thing about Webb’s piece is the repetitive use of fuzzy slurs like “Republican operatives” and “Republican funded.” None of the initiatives Webb discusses were funded by the GOP. That some of them were funded by people who preferred to see Republicans elected is a far different thing. One can demand that politicians denounce the actions of its allies–as Bush did with some of the attacks made by the Swift Boaters–but surely that’s as far as it goes.