We have come to a point at which there is a lot of talk about whether our fighting men are praiseworthy or not. We are talking about honor, though few use the word: about what kinds of things are honorable, and what are dishonorable, and who deserves to be considered a praiseworthy man. There are some disturbing trends.
One of them, which I won't discuss at this time, is captured by a Belmont Club post, which points out two incidents of the trend: the Pappy Boyington matter mentioned below, and San Francisco's refusal to permit the USS Iowa to become a floating museum at their wharf. The last one is under negotiation still, Wretchard reports, with the San Francisco board of supervisors considering allowing the Iowa if they can have an annual peace conference on the ship "the kind in which the Iowa once participated when it was sailing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt around the world to negotiate the agreements to officially end World War II."
Wretchard points out the small fact that the USS Iowa actually ferried Roosevelt to a war conference, at which Operation Overloard's details were cemented. That did, of course, produce a peace of a sort -- the kind that the military is for. Honoring that kind of activity, warfighting for any purpose, is the objection that this trend encompasses. Holly Aho has another such monument: a planned Vancouver monument to US draft dodgers and their Canadian hosts.
That is the first disturbing trend. The second is what this post means to address: the question of whether and when military men ought to be treated as honorable -- when it is appropriate to question their honor, and by what standards they ought to be judged. This is a matter that is becoming important due to recent events.
I linked to the piece on Paul Hackett, who was subject to a whispering campaign within Democratic circles designed to paint him as a dishonorable abuser. But this is not isolated: Jack Murtha was attacked, and his war record questioned, by Democrats as well as, and particularly unfairly by, Republicans; the official Democratic Party in Minnesota is trying to ban a pair of ads being run by Iraqi veterans in favor of the war, calling them "un-American." I listened to the radio interview yesterday, and a supporter of the ban called up and told Lt. Col. Stephenson that he -- the colonel -- was a liar. Challenged to prove it, the man said, "Did I say lies, or did I say lies and misrepresentations?" The distinction is lost.
It does appear to be the case that, as Sovay complained to me the other day, people feel free to slander the honor of those with whom they disagree. The average person seems not to understand the concept of honor at all; if you agree with them, you must be a right and decent person, and if you do not, you must be a scoundrel.
Unfortunately, we can't insist on a blanket rule that war records are not to be questioned, or that the character of veterans is never to be attacked. There are times when it is necessary to do so -- that is, when the veteran in question really is a scoundrel, and it is important to demonstrate it lest the scoundrel be entrusted with a high and powerful office. I am of course thinking of John Kerry as I write that.
I try to be as respectful as I can when I write about Kerry, because I know that a lot of people voted for him and want to think well of him. "As respectful as I can" is, however, not at all respectful -- but I do try to give a fair hearing on questions pertaining to him, as in that post where I point readers to the Snopes page, as well as to AuthentiSEAL, whose lead investigator is someone I've known for years:
In fairness to the Senator, however, Snopes considers him clear of the fake-medals charge. Actually, they have a whole page for Kerry, most of which claims are rated false by Snopes. My own sense is based on a personal friendship, and high regard for the honor of that friend. I see no reason why my regard for Steve Robinson should be persuasive to anyone else, but for what it is worth, there it is.I note that Bush personally supported Kerry on this score during the campaign, even in a very closely run race. I likewise linked to Snopes during the campaign, though I also linked to the claims by the several veteran's organizations that questioned or challenged Kerry. The charges were serious, after all; and they were being made by good men. In the ancient Germanic system of oath-swearing, even the most honorable man's oath could be overridden if enough other honorable men swore the opposite. In the case of Kerry, the numbers were strongly against him, and I think we had to make note of that.
Was it fair? I tried to be fair; and in the final analysis, the truth may not be knowable on these disputed matters. We have to decide what to believe based on the men involved, as well as the evidence that is available.
Why, then, do I feel confident in condemning Kerry as dishonorable? It is not, in fact, for any of the disputed reasons at all. It is for the reasons that are not in dispute:
1) John Kerry met with representatives of the Vietnamese Communists in Paris, and conducted negotiations with them on a treaty -- "the People's Peace Treaty." He did this while a serving Naval officer, and used that position to attempt to further the treaty's acceptance by the US Congress. The man does not deny this; it is not in dispute. Indeed, he testified to it before the Senate. At the least, this was dishonorable behavior; I would not be opposed to seeing it deemed treason under the Constitution, and brought to trial.
2) John Kerry collected more than a hundred thousand dollars of pay as a Senator in direct violation of Federal law. As a Senator, he was of course in a position to change the law governing how Senators can be paid, and for what purposes they may be absent and still collect pay. A man could argue reasonably that a Senator is performing a needed public service by campaigning for President, since we need Presidents and a Senator might be qualified. However, the law is what it is; the roll shows what it shows; and he has not returned the people's money, to which he is not entitled. He is a thief, and it is the worse for him that he is one of the richest men in the country. Again, this is not in dispute.
3) Kerry testifies that he was a war criminal, who indiscriminately murdered civilians. An officer is required by military law to refuse illegal orders -- indeed, any serviceman is. It is a moral as well as a legal obligation. There is no dispute -- it is the man's own word.
I could go on, but the point is surely made. The things that annoyed me were the things I myself observed the man doing and saying: it was not that I disagreed with him, but that he was behaving as a dishonorable scoundrel.
This is how I feel Kerry ought to be treated -- with utter contempt, that is, and yet still with the fairness of mind to cite such evidence, as Snopes, that is in his favor. Even to Kerry, I would not be unfair.
Contrast that, if you like, with how I treated Hackett: I endorsed him over his opponent, though I had to do so while explaining many reservations and disagreements on policy. I have held my tongue on Murtha, though I strongly disagree not only with what he said but with his having said it. I think it was bad for morale, and good for enemy morale; and those are things we ought to avoid in wartime. Yet he was a hero, and I have not forgotten his service, nor questioned his honor.
I have not questioned the honor of Colin Powell, but I have made light of his character on occasion; perhaps unfairly. He is another veteran with an impressive record, but it was not for his military service which led me to scoff at him. Nor was it because I disagreed with him -- it was precisely the moment at which I was most in agreement with him that has led me to lose respect for him. It was, in other words, his testimony before the UN on Iraq, which later proved to be laughably wrong on a number of points. General Powell claims that he was deceived by the intelligence services, and perhaps he was. I would like to believe it; but I find it difficult to forgive. There is no falsehood that offends me more than one I wanted to believe.
This has all troubled me greatly over the last few days. I have tried to formulate some rule, or guideline that would let us know when it is appropriate or right to question the honor of an apparently valorous man. There are times -- surely, far more times -- when we should not. Yet we have to be able to do so when it is critical, for the defense of the Republic's institutions.
My torment over the issue is similar, I suspect, to that felt by good Catholics who looked in horror on the priesthood scandals of a few years ago. The desire is to honor a kind of man -- a priest, a soldier -- who has nobly volunteered and sacrificed for the greater good. Yet the undeniable reality was that some had misused the honor of the uniform to cover their own flaws. One should not wish to question a soldier's honor, nor a priest's -- and yet, because we live in a bad world, we sometimes must.
I will propose these general guidelines for discussion. This is a difficult matter, and I will be glad of your advice.
1) A veteran's honor should not be questioned in any matter that is not important enough to kill or die over. This is not an advocation of violence, but only a rule of thumb for judging whether the matter is of sufficient weight: it ought to be as serious as a capital crime, or a war.
The stability of the Republic is such a matter; we have whole classes of men, including the soldiers themselves, whose job is just that. In terms of political office, I am not sure that any office except the Presidency is sufficiently powerful for the occupant to be able, himself, to threaten the stability of the Republic. The Supreme Court is perhaps the only other. I am sure that governors do not; I am sure that Representatives do not; and we have clear evidence that dishonorable men can serve in the Senate for decades without the place collapsing.
We might well choose to kill or die to protect our children from rape, to return to the argument from the evil men who had infiltrated the priesthood. We can therefore feel certain that we are not overreacting by questioning, and being certain of, the honor of men to whom we allow that kind of access to and control of our children.
The point of this guideline is to limit the field sharply. There have been too many examples lately of people questioning honor for purely political motives -- for example, to protect a preferred candidate for a Senate seat, or to score a political point in a debate (as in the case of Murtha). That is not acceptable: the Republic will not fall if you win or lose a debate. It might be endangered if the President were a dishonorable man, but if a debate or a vote is lost, you schedule another.
2) If you're going to question the honor of a veteran's record, it must be done according to the military's (or priesthood's) own standards. It is no good to say that Pappy Boyington was dishonorable because he killed many men; that was what his duty obligated him to do. If he held converse with the enemy, that is against the military's code of honor, and ought to be condemned.
3) If you're going to question a veteran's honor outside of his service record, it can be done according to any conception of honor, and need not rise to the level of guideline (1). If we were speaking of a man who had been a hero in the service, and yet had later murdered a man in Memphis, it is possible to separate the honor of his service from the murder. A recent example of this type: "Duke" Cunningham, a hero whose Vietnam service we admire; and whose theft of public monies we deplore.
4) It is best to observe the strictest standard of evidence and proof whenever questions of this type arise. A large raft of charges was floated against Kerry; some of them are passionately believed by men I respect. Yet I assign them to the category of things which cannot be proven; I judge Kerry only on the charges that he does not dispute, or which are based on plain facts that are not able to be disputed. If you are one of those with a passionate belief that you can't prove, that is fine as long as you recognize and admit to yourself that it is so; I recognize that my anger toward Powell may not be fair, but I am still angry. I doubt he could win my support for anything, yet when I discuss him with you, I point to his counterarguments as well as the facts I have observed.
These guidelines are meant as a start. Feel free to advise, or argue against them. The greater challenge is from the first trend, mentioned at the beginning of the piece -- the idea of honor being washed away entirely. Whatever we do about this second trend, it should be done in order to shore up the foundations of honor in American life. We need to be able to police it enough to keep it from being falsely used, but we need to respect it enough that it can serve as a shield when it is rightly won. The concept of honor needs defending. It cannot be defended if we do not take it seriously, and apply ourselves to upholding it fairly.