2005/11/04

Cindy Sheehan's question

The famous question Cindy Sheehan asked of President Bush that Bush never saw fit to answer was “What was the 'noble cause' that my son died for?” Her son was Army Specialist Casey Sheehan and he perished in the Iraq War while fighting in Baghdad in April 2004.

Was her expectation of getting an answer a reasonable one?

Is it appropriate for citizens to expect their Commander-in-Chief to explain to them what the reasons for the war are?

Let's take a look at history. In 218 BC, Hannibal of Carthage invaded Italy in order to break Rome's grip on the Mediterranean. His exploits were chronicled by the Roman writer Livy two centuries later. Cannae & Lake Trasimene were his two most famous victories. His main opponent on the Roman side was Scipio. How did Scipio evaluate his foe? In the Penguin version, this is on p 65. /

My men, let me tell you of the sort of warfare you must expect: it will be against an enemy you defeated in the last war both on land and at sea; an enemy from whom you have exacted tribute for twenty years; an enemy from whom you took Sicily and Sardinia as prizes of war. You, therefore, will enter upon it with the high hearts of victory, they are in the despondency of beaten men. Nay more, their readiness to fight at all is due not to courage but necessity – unless you imagine that an enemy who declined combat when his army was still intact, has better hopes of success now that he has lost two thirds of his troops during the passage of the Alps. Perhaps you will answer that though they are few they are nevertheless brave and strong – that they are irresistible fighters. Nonsense! They are the ghosts and shadows of men; already half dead with hunger, cold, dirt and neglect; all their strength has been beaten out of them by the Alpine crags.

And so on and so forth. The war, by the way lasted 16 years, until 202 BC. Did Scipio actually utter these words? Back in college, my Professor of English History told us “Probably not. Ancient historians weren't that worried about what exact words leaders spoke, they were more concerned with what those leaders should have said.” Scipio's words are interesting to us here as they make very clear why the Romans are fighting. After twenty years of receiving tribute from Carthage, Rome must now defend itself from the Carthaginians, who have crossed the Alps into Northern Italy in order to do damage to Rome and its possessions.

How about Hannibal's reasons for war?

Circumstances compel you [My soldiers] to fight; but those same circumstances offer you in the event of victory nobler rewards than a man might pray for, even from the immortal gods. The prize would be great enough, were we only to recover by the strength of our hands the islands of Sicily and Sardinia which our fathers lost; but all the heaped wealth of Rome, won in her long career of conquest, will be yours

He also disses the enemy:

...an army of raw recruits, beaten this very summer to its knees and penned in by the Gauls – an army and its commander still strangers to one another.

And provides further reasons for the war:

They demand the right to dictate to us who our friends should be and who our enemies. They circumscribe our liberties, barring us in behind barriers of rivers or mountains beyond which we may not pass – but they do not themselves observe the limits they have set.

So the answer to the question here is yes. By traditions going back at least 2000 years, it is entirely appropriate for citizens to expect their Commander-in-Chief to explain the reasons for the war that they are currently engaged in. I noticed that conservatives did not attempt to explain what the war in Iraq was all about when Ms Sheehan first posed her question. It would have been inappropriate for them to do so. Explaining the purpose of the war was President Bush's job. I notice that support for the President and for the war have both sharply declined over the past few months. I would suggest that it is precisely Bush's failure to articulate what the war is all about and what it is that America hopes to achieve that is driving the popularity of the war ever downwards.

BTW: Billmon composes a thinkpiece on the Iraq War in which motivations and objectives are highly relevant.

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