What we owe our people in uniform

I can’t get the pictures from Iraq out of my mind – soldiers who will never come home, others with multiple missing limbs and ingrained psychological trauma. Now, amid the rising hot air of the 2008 presidential campaign, a moment of sanity last week when U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) implored his Senate colleagues to “step up” and confront the Iraq issue squarely. “We owe it to those men and women that we send into that grinder,” he said. Hagel asks nothing short of accounting for our own views, to me the most basic of public acts we must do in public life. In an impassioned two-minute plea, he asked his colleagues: “What do you believe?” “What are you willing to support?” “What do you think?”

I do not know questions any more fundamental than these. After all, it is the answers to such questions that reflect our deepest values and expectations; such questions prompt and prod us to reveal our own logic and take stock of our own heart. We can disagree about the war and the best course from here; but as we do, let us know that the grinder does not stop.

The grinder waits for no one.

In the last couple of years I have witnessed a remarkable tribute to our men and women in uniform. I am a regular ticket holder for the Washington Capitals hockey team and during many games in the Verizon Center people are asked to recognize those soldiers in attendance. A prolonged, standing ovation ensues; indeed, as opposition to the war has increased over the last year or two, the length and intensity of the ovation has only expanded. I cannot describe the feeling.

When we send our men and women into the grinder, we forge an implicit covenant with them – why are you going; under what conditions shall we bring you home; what is the nature of your service and how shall we support you?

When that covenant unravels, and when real disagreements arise about next steps, the next question becomes, “How shall we proceed?" Here, too, Senator Hagel has something important to say:

What I hear on both sides of this argument, impugning motives and patriotism to our country, not only is it offensive and disgusting, but it debases the whole system of our country and who we are. My goodness, can’t we debate the most critical issue of our time out front, in front of the American people?

This is a reasonable request but not an easy one to fulfill. I suspect that many members of Congress are deeply torn about the war and what to do. Each option for action comes with its own dilemmas and none easy to reconcile.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? We can debate this issue like we do so many others, as if the only considerations are political. Or, people can step up and engage, even if, perhaps especially if, they are torn.

You see, the grinder waits for no one.