Thirty-five years ago today, I testified before the United States Senate.
I was a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran who believed the war had to come to an end. It was 1971.Three years earlier, Richard Nixon had been elected president with a secret plan for peace -- a plan he kept secret from the American people as young Americans continued to die for a mission high-ranking officials of two administrations had decided was unwinnable.
We would watch the Nixon administration lie, break the law, and work overtime to squash dissent -- all the while claiming absurdly they were prolonging war to protect our troops as they withdrew. We were a country deeply divided. World War II fathers split with Vietnam generation sons over a war that was tearing us apart -- and split, particularly, over our responsibilities during a time of war.
Many people did not understand or agree with my act of public dissent. To them, supporting the troops meant continuing to support the war, or at least keeping my mouth shut.
But I couldn't remain silent.
I felt compelled to speak out about what was happening in Vietnam, where the children of America were pulled from front porches and living rooms and plunged almost overnight into a world of sniper fire, ambushes, rockets, booby traps, body bags, explosions, sleeplessness, and the confusion created by an enemy who was sometimes invisible and firing at us, and sometimes right next to us and smiling. It was clear that thousands of Americans were losing their lives in Vietnam while politicians in Washington schemed to save their political reputations.
Thirty-five years later, in another war gone off course, I see history repeating itself. It is both a right and an obligation for Americans today to disagree with a president who is wrong, a policy that is wrong, and a course in Iraq that weakens the nation. Again, we must refuse to sit quietly and watch our troops sacrificed for a policy that isn't working while Americans who dissent and ask tough questions are branded unpatriotic.
Just as it was in 1971, it is again right to make clear that the best way to support the troops is to oppose a course that squanders their lives, dishonors their sacrifice, and disserves the American people and our principles.True patriots must defend the right of dissent and listen to the dissenters. Dissenters are not always right, but it is always a warning sign when they are accused of unpatriotic sentiments by politicians trying to avoid accountability or debate on their own policies.
We should know by now that those who are right should never fear scrutiny of their policy and thorough debate. In World War I, America's values were degraded, not defended, when dissenters were jailed and the teaching of German was banned in some public schools. It was panic and prejudice, not true patriotism, that brought the internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II, a measure upheld by Supreme Court justices who did not uphold their oaths to defend the Constitution. We are stronger today because no less a rock-ribbed conservative than Robert Taft stood up at the height of World War II and asserted, ''The maintenance of the right of criticism in the long run will do the country maintaining it a great deal more good than it will do the enemy, and will prevent mistakes which might otherwise occur." --
In recent weeks, a number of retired high-ranking military leaders have publicly called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And from the ranks of this administration and its conservative surrogates, we've heard these calls dismissed as acts of disloyalty or as a threat to civilian control of the armed forces. We have even heard accusations that this dissent gives aid and comfort to the enemy. That line of attack is shameful, especially coming from those who have never worn the uniform.
Generals and others who call for recognizing the facts on the ground in Iraq are not defeatists, they are patriots. At a time when mistake after mistake is being compounded by the very civilian leadership in the Pentagon that ignored expert military advice in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, those who understand the price being paid for each mistake by our troops, our country, and Iraq itself must be heard. At a time when our nation is imprisoned in a failed policy and we are being told once again that admitting the mistakes, not the mistakes themselves, will provide our enemies with an intolerable propaganda victory, that we literally have no choice but to stay the course even to a bitter end, those who seek to reclaim America's true sovereignty and freedom of action must be respected.
Iraq is not Vietnam, and the war on terrorism is not the Cold War. But the threat of jihadist extremism is another ''long, twilight struggle," as President Kennedy said in his inaugural, and the threat is very real, but we will never defeat terrorists by trampling our own freedom and democracy. The Swift Boat-style attacks that have been aimed at dissenters from Gold Star mothers to decorated veterans like Jack Murtha hurt our democracy even more than they wound their target. I still believe as strongly as I did 35 years ago that the most important way to support our troops is to tell the truth. Patriotism does not belong to those who defend a president's position -- it belongs to those who defend our country, in battle and in dissent. That is a lesson of Vietnam worth remembering today.