Train of thought: A letter to Sen. Arlen Specter

Posted: Jul 20, 2007 12:01 AM
Train of thought: A letter to Sen. Arlen Specter

Dear Sen. Specter: I'm writing today because I didn't get a chance to respond to your parting comment as you left the train last week in Philadelphia. If you recall, we were both riding the Acela out of Washington; I was the columnist sitting across the aisle from you (both literally and in a Washington way, often, figuratively). I introduced myself and offered you that day's column for your reading pleasure.

You can't blame a gal: How often do the ink-stained wretched get a U.S. senator as a virtually captive traveling companion? No office aides to intervene, no floor votes to run off to: just a nice long stretch of time to pass, sort of together.

Wondering how best to take journalistic advantage of the situation, I realized the column was the key. Not a big intrusion, but maybe an icebreaker. Or maybe not. After you accepted my column on Iraq -- an op-ed lamenting the futility of "surge" and "withdrawal" plans in Iraq that fail to address the menace in Iran (and elsewhere) -- you read it. That was nice. I sat up a little, hoping for a senatorial reaction, but didn't get one. Then again, maybe I did: You turned to another newspaper. Still no reaction. Then you fell asleep. Nothing. Then you woke up. Still nothing. Then you had lunch. Oh well. We were almost into Philadelphia.

And then, gathering your belongings, you said: "So. You just want to bomb them?"

Let me explain. Sufficiently intrigued, you sat for the whole harangue. Securing enough of Iraq so Iraqis "reconcile" is not a strategy; it's a pipe dream even a rudimentary understanding of Islamic culture can pop. Meanwhile, the dream becomes a nightmare once we notice that American blood and treasure are creating just another sharia state in Iraq. This one being majority Shiite, it's more than likely to become a natural ally of Shiite Iran, whose genocidal nuclear ambitions and terror exports go unchecked by our current efforts. Indeed, it is Iran (and other regional jihadist centers) that should come into U.S. military focus. Of course, given the limitations of the "limited war" to which we hold ourselves, can the United States ever get it together to really save the Free World?

Phew. Nodding at intervals, you asked questions, mainly about my personal tolerance for civilian casualties -- theirs, not ours. You asked me something like: At what number do civilian deaths -- theirs -- become intolerable? How many people -- not ours -- have to die before I (me) say it's too much? So now I ask: Was that Diyala, or Pennsylvania you represent? Uppermost in your mind were Iraqi (or, for that matter, Iranian) casualties, a likely consequence of the aggressive actions under discussion -- since this was, in fact, war we were talking about. Another likely consequence of such actions -- warfare, right? -- is the achievement of American war goals, which strikes me as preferable to just bleeding our nation to death. But maybe I've been reading too much history. Somehow, American war goals have become a secondary consideration when America wages war. As Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger put it to The Washington Times: "We could absolutely crush every one of (our enemies in Iraq), but would you be happy with what is left?"

Well, it sure sounds better than asking American troops to knock on doors, card terrorists and drive over IEDs for the next 20 years. But not to the powers that be. In our new age, in our post-modern culture, American war goals -- American self-preservation -- are secondary to war casualties, and I don't mean our own.

That's who we are -- socially humane, expendable and increasingly impotent. It's not who our fathers and grandfathers were. The men who decimated German and Japanese cities as part of the effort to win World War II as quickly as possible would have been perplexed by descendants who now send American troops house to booby-trapped house and expect to achieve anything but more war, "limited" though it may be.

Talk about waste.

You rose to go. I asked whether anything I said had made sense. Your conclusion: "I don't think we're prepared to take the kind of civilian casualties that you describe."

And you were gone.

Here's what I wanted to say next: If that's the case, senator -- and I'm afraid it is -- we'd better get out of the business of trying to project power. We have forgotten how.