Disgrace Abounding

Posted: Jul 21, 2003 12:00 AM
"Lead us not into temptation." I commend this commandment to Peter Jennings of ABC, who did exactly that devil-work with only lightly concealed gusto in midweek on his nightly news.

Here are two or three soldiers, outdoors, their gear still on. The sun is scorching hot. In fact, our soldiers have been hot for four months. And sandswept, early on.

They were fighting a very hot war for six weeks, and maybe one of them, maybe all three, saw other soldiers alongside being killed. And for what seem now the interminable weeks since April 9, when Saddam's statue was toppled and Baghdad surrendered, they haven't known where the next stray bullet or hand grenade will come from, or whether one of them will be its victim.

And it isn't only the hidden assailant who has eyes on them, it's all those Iraqis who scurry about taunting them as infidels and oppressors, and sometimes throwing rocks. Thank God, they all thought until a few days ago, their division would be called back to America in a week or two! -- but no. An order came in canceling their departure, prolonging their tour of duty for who knows how long.

Along comes Peter Jennings' reporter, with the camera and the microphone. "Well, soldier, what do you think about staying on in Iraq?"

It is a tribute to residual self-control (maybe Mother would be watching?) that the soldier asked that question didn't reply using spiky barracks-talk. Peter wanted to know, what did the soldier think about staying on for a while in Iraq?

What this soldier said was that he wanted to go home, that he could no longer trust the word of the military, that he wasn't sure the whole operation wasn't a bad idea, that he had no good feelings left for the Iraqis, given how badly they were reacting to the GIs.

What would you expect him to say?

Well, in fact, one would have hoped for something different, but that may be a counsel of perfection. Wallace Beery or Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn might have said to the reporter, "Arsehole! You think it's FUN here? Why are you asking dumb questions? If you mean, will we stay on as long as we're needed, why yes, and God bless the Queen!"

It takes self-conscious acknowledgment of the irony, when writing in an air-conditioned study, to reproach soldiers in the field. As a matter of punctilio, they were in fact rebuked, by the head of Central Command the following day. General Abizaid stated that under Army code, no criticism is permitted, nor even disparagement, of command decisions. The First Amendment does not apply in the military.

A court martial could be summoned, but won't be -- to do so would only attract Peter's notice, and bring more attention to the episode. The offending soldiers will be reprimanded, which will give them something more to gripe about.

Perhaps they will be taken to one side and spoken to by their company commander, or, who knows, maybe even the general. He might begin by saying to them: Have you got any idea of something called pride? Pride is what kept the Mayflower people from giving up and sailing back to England. It's what gave the early Americans the steel to face their own Iraqs -- Indians and freezing weather and hunger and pain and loneliness.

There was something there that made them stick it out. And they hoped, those who wrote home and sang songs and wrote poetry, that in doing so they would endow a tradition, served by American soldiers for three centuries, in jungles and swamps and deserts (yes, deserts), where many of them lived and died not for four months but sometimes for years.

"And they," the company commander might conclude, "were draftees. WE are volunteers. We said we'd do the work, go where we were told to go, fight who we were told to fight, accept the orders we got, and do this without griping to Peter Jennings.

"Any questions?"

Questions would be unlikely.