A Call to Service
I have always had an immense appreciation for my country and the ideals and values it aspires to embrace. This appreciation has manifested itself over the years in both written and spoken form, and seeing the debate and dialogue generated from such efforts has made me appreciate America and what it stands for even more. It has also led to the realization that there are many out there who simply don’t get America, either because they are ignorant of the Constitution of the United States, which serves as the foundation of such an appreciation, or because they believe their own interpretation of the American ideal trumps that which legally, morally and structurally binds our nation together.
Sadly, these rejectionists have infiltrated the very fabric of a social movement here in the United States which for a lack of any better title will be referred to as the “antiwar movement.” Failing to comprehend the fundamental necessity of the constitutional process in order to right that which is wrong with America today, these rejectionists seek shortcuts which may appeal to the narcissism evident in many small populist movements, but in reality are intellectually fragile and constitutionally corrupt. I single out the “impeach now” crowd in this category, and in particular Cindy Sheehan and the chaotic “Summer of Love 2007” fiasco which has done more harm to the antiwar movement than many realize.
I am fully supportive of any process which seeks to raise awareness of the constitutional remedy of impeachment when faced with acts on the part of the president and vice president which meet the criteria set forth by Article Two, Section IV of the Constitution. In fact, I participated in a “Citizen’s Commission of Inquiry” facilitated by one of Sheehan’s current crop of advisers, David Swanson, as a witness before a mock jury examining the actions of the Bush administration as they related to the rule of law. I did so as part of a process intended to empower people through education and information gathering so that they might be better informed on matters they have a vested interest in, such as how they are governed by those elected to higher office. My statements were limited to issues pertaining to Iraq, and in particular the specifics of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction as an excuse for war.
I believed then, and strongly believe today, that the Bush administration was derelict in the performance of its duties regarding the compilation and presentation of its case for war in Iraq, including the deliberate falsification and misrepresentation of fact to Congress. I also recognize the complicity of many in Congress in these acts of willful fabrication, and have spoken often about the difficulty one has in having one party (Congress) seeking to investigate and indict a second party (the president) when both were conspirators in the same crime. Hence my position that repudiation of the systemic failings of our entire system of governance, including the executive and legislative branches, but also the bedrock of American democracy, namely “We the People.” We have all failed to perform within either the intent or structures set forth by the founding fathers when they wrote the Constitution.
The problem we face today in America isn’t the Constitution, but rather our collective deviation from the structures of democracy set forth by it. I make no apologies for my steadfast advocacy of governance in accordance with that venerable document. For those who find such advocacy difficult to embrace I can say only this: You are part of the problem, not part of the solution. This is why I have broken with the intellectually simplistic and constitutionally challenged “impeach now” crowd, which cites the Constitution without a firm understanding or appreciation of its processes.
One only has to look at the “Citizen’s Commission of Inquiry” and the categories it proposed as impeachable offenses to understand just how far it has drifted from relevance and reality: In addition to “Iraq” and “Torture” (both of which are legitimate avenues of exploration when it comes to presidential legal abuse), we find “Global Environment,” “Global Health (AIDS and Reproductive Rights)” and “Hurricane Katrina.” I’m all for the responsible criticism of bad policy, but one must draw a line between the discussion of impeachable offenses and political differences of opinion. The Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina was, and continues to be, contemptible, but to link it with issues such as Iraq and torture simply illustrates the intellectual and legal vacuum many in the “impeach now” crowd operate in.
And so they are failing, and will continue to fail, to have any meaningful impact on the American political system. The endorsement of their cause by fringe players in the legislative branch, and by disparate and poorly organized elements within American society, gets “headline attention” from a closed circle of cheerleading outlets within their movement, but continues to be ignored by the vast majority of Americans. The fact that the “Citizen’s Commission” could muster only some 70 activists for presentation of a mock indictment to the White House during the much-ballyhooed (and significantly underattended) “Camp Democracy” in September 2006 underscores the massive gulf which exists between its radical agenda and the reality of mainstream America. These same hard-core supporters constitute with little change the current flock that walks alongside Cindy Sheehan in her self-destructive march, an act of pathos and tragedy which resembles the Children’s Crusade or Napoleon’s march on Moscow (without the numbers, just the results) more than it does anything Martin Luther King Jr. ever assembled during his time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: American democracy is a game of numbers. The more people you align with your cause, the better chance you have of getting the system defined by the Constitution to work to your benefit (providing, of course, your cause adheres to the rule of law).
I often fall back on sports analogies to explain political situations to American audiences. The fact that my friends can spout out the minutia of sports statistics (a skill set developed only by wading through reams of paper and gigabytes worth of electronic data), all the while claiming they don’t have enough time in the day to read the newspaper or watch news programming to formulate an informed opinion on issues like Iraq, Iran and the global war on terror, speaks to the importance of the sports metaphor. The “impeach now” crowd reminds me of a football coach, late in a season which has produced only loss after loss, imploring his team to throw a “Hail Mary” pass over and over again, all the while suffering sack after sack of its quarterback as the offensive line fails to effectively block and the receivers fail to get open. The season is lost, and instead of pursuing futile and ineffective tactics designed to produce a meaningless score, the coach would be better off seeking to return to the basics so that his team might perform better next season. Only when the basics of blocking, tackling, running and ball handling are mastered can one expect to mount a campaign designed to produce a winning season. The “impeach now” folks, along with much of the antiwar movement in America today, lack the basics needed to win a game, yet alone dominate a season. But maybe the sports analogy doesn’t resonate with certain members of this movement. I have alluded to a different model in other writings, using the “firefighter benchmark” as a reference for those on the fringes of America’s political left to perhaps make greater inroads, intellectually and practically, into the mainstream of American political life. While some in the “impeach now” crowd have been derisive of such a model, my experience in presenting it to crowds of Americans of all political walks across the nation shows that the “firefighter benchmark” is a sound one which is readily grasped by most, if not all, who hear it.
In short, since American firefighters are perhaps best placed in any given community to understand that community’s overall health (given their responses to a variety of emergency situations that cut across all socioeconomic-political boundaries), they have much more in common with progressive social activist groups than many would acknowledge. Also, because firefighters are positively entrenched in the mainstream of America’s social fabric, anything the antiwar community could do to get a conservative firefighting crowd to embrace their cause would probably be successful in swaying mainstream America, the basic underlying premise of the “firefighter benchmark.”
For those in the antiwar community who still don’t get the connection, perhaps it can be explained by using a war analogy (and thus bringing the analogical motif full circle). We in the modern antiwar movement often speak about the need to be antiwar but pro-troop. This concept often finds itself in conflict with the argument that in order to best support the troops, one must also support their mission. I support the armed forces of the United States, and their mission of protecting America from its enemies. This does not make me pro-war, in the same way that supporting America’s firefighters in their effort to combat fire doesn’t make me pro-fire. However, many Americans fail to understand the difference between supporting a soldier’s mission and supporting war. I support firefighters, but hate fire. I understand that sometimes fires occur, and when they do I want a professional, highly trained, well-led and well-equipped firefighting team to respond to the situation. But I, as a citizen and a firefighter, also recognize that the best way to handle fire is to prevent fires from occurring. As such, I am a huge proponent of fire prevention across the entire spectrum of American life.
I likewise support a professional military, well equipped and highly trained, because I am all too aware that there may be threats to my country that require military action. But I hate war. If we handled fire in America in the same cavalier way we handle war, we would be giving civic awards to arsonists. But we recognize destructive fire as an evil, and we condemn those who set destructive fires deliberately. It is high time we provide the same social stigma to those who promote war. The antiwar movement needs to find a way to convince the American public that supporting the antiwar cause is like supporting fire prevention, advocating a “war prevention” mentality that embraces the military just as our community embraces firefighters, but rejects those who promote war as policy with the same repudiation and disgust we show those who commit acts of arson.
The key to this, of course, is instilling a national sense of community that matches the social awareness most Americans exhibit when dealing with local issues. Small-town America, for the most part, still functions well. It does so because there is still a sense of communal belonging, where residents feel a sense of involvement that serves as the bedrock of citizenship. This sense of communal belonging seems to fall apart the further one is removed from Town Hall, so that a vote on property taxes and the funding of a school district receives greater citizen participation than does a national election where military conflict is the primary issue at stake. The problem is that one doesn’t make citizens. Of course, Americans born into this great land of ours are granted that status at birth, without having to do anything to earn it. But titular citizenship is far removed from participatory citizenship. It is like comparing an illusion to reality. Ask those who immigrated to America and chose to become citizens what best defines an American and they will tell you “the Constitution,” since they actually had to take (and pass) a test on the Constitution in order to receive citizenship. If your Lou Dobbs-type citizen (born and bred as a legal American) had to take and pass a test on the Constitution today in order to retain citizenship, we would probably see our population drop by over 80 percent.
The Constitution is the key. But how do we instill a sense of ownership of the Constitution into the psyche of the average American? My parents always believed that that which is of most value should be earned, not given. While I’m not in favor of taking citizenship away from Americans, I am in favor of providing every American the opportunity to discover what it really means to be an American citizen. In short, I am espousing a return to the basics, this time in the form of mandatory national service. Without exception or deferment, all able-body Americans, upon reaching the age of 18 (or upon graduation if they are in school when they reach 18), would have to serve their country for two years.
In this model, the first two months of such service would be compulsory military basic training, in which the draftee would be imbued with discipline and the necessity of adhering to a chain of command. At the end of their basic training, the draftees would be given a chance to choose a three-year enlistment in the armed forces or a two-year hitch with nonmilitary service options. These options could include tours with the U.S. Forest Service as wildland firefighters/forest technicians, or with the U.S. Health Service as EMT/paramedics serving rural and/or inner-city communities, or as teaching/education assistants, or as national infrastructure repair crew members, or any other form of service which provides needed labor for our nation while imbuing the draftee with a sense of duty, responsibility and belonging.
A national draft along the lines of that mentioned above would enable America to return to the basics of citizenship. Those drafted who successfully served out their tour of duty would feel a sense of ownership of America, and as such they would be much more likely to participate in the various processes which make this nation work and succeed. Such participation is the foundation of what makes the American democratic experiment work. Without it, our system falls prey to the predatory trends inherent in the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about so many years ago. Without it, the vacuum of citizenship is filled by special interests that care more about their bottom line than defending the Constitution. With the active participation of the American people, imbued with a sense of belonging and stiffened with an appreciation of the Constitution, we can, and will, once again become a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, as intended when our founding fathers wrote the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble, “We the People of the United States of America.” If you’re in the antiwar movement, and you’re looking for a specific cause to support, I can think of none better than a call for national service that would strengthen the bond between citizen and nation.
But don’t try to sell this to the ongoing train wreck that is Cindy Sheehan’s “Summer of Love 2007” tour. Besides failing to generate a following that could be called significant and balanced numerically or ideologically, Sheehan has attacked one of the strongest antiwar advocates in the U.S. Congress, Rep. John Conyers, and made a joke of herself and her followers in the process. Before she destroys whatever vestige of credibility is left to her as a mainstream activist, I would advise Sheehan and those who are marching with her (some of whom I count as my friends and colleagues) to take a pause and read my book “Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement.” The ideas and concepts set forth on strategy, operations and tactics, as well as gathering intelligence and knowing your enemy and battlefield, might have enabled Sheehan to plan and execute a more coherent and effective return from retirement.
I’m not asking Sheehan to “retire” yet again; far from it. I simply want her to regroup and reconsider her hate-filled rhetoric and radical associations. The Cindy Sheehan who gracefully and effectively challenged George Bush in Crawford during the summer of 2005 had mainstream appeal. The Sheehan who gets herself arrested attacking those in Congress who are most sympathetic to getting our nation out of the Iraq debacle does not. Apply the lessons of “The Art of War” to your past experiences, Cindy, and tell us where you went right in Crawford and where we could have helped you more, and understand why what you are doing today, while undoubtedly well intentioned, is so utterly self-destructive not only for you but the antiwar movement as a whole. The Cindy Sheehan of Crawford fame was someone I was proud to associate with. Sadly, the Cindy Sheehan of today remains for me and most other Americans an enigma wrapped in a puzzle, surrounded by radical fringe ideology so far removed from the mainstream as to be virtually unrecognizable and as such un-embraceable by the majority of Americans the future of our movement depends on for any hope of victory.
Scott Ritter was a Marine Corps intelligence officer from 1984 to 1991 and a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of numerous books. His latest is “Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement” (Nation Books, April 2007).