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Editorials

The Costs of War
By Bill Moyers
Nov 6, 2002, 11:19am

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Reprinted from PBS.org

Iraq is not Vietnam, but war is war. Some of you will recall that I was Press Secretary to Lyndon Johnson during the escalation of war in Vietnam. Like the White House today, we didn't talk very much about what the war would cost. Not in the beginning. We weren't sure, and we didn't really want to know too soon, anyway.

If we had to tell Congress and the public the true cost of the war, we were afraid of what it would do to the rest of the budget - the money for education, poverty, Medicare. In time, we had to figure it out and come clean. It wasn't the price tag that hurt as much as it was the body bag. The dead were coming back in such numbers that LBJ began to grow morose, and sometimes took to bed with the covers pulled above his eyes, as if he could avoid the ghosts of young men marching around in his head. I thought of this the other day, when President Bush spoke of the loss of American lives in Iraq. He said, "I'm the one who will have to look the mothers in the eye."

LBJ said almost the same thing. No president can help but think of the mothers, widows, and orphans.

Mr. Bush is amassing a mighty American armada in the Middle East - incredible firepower. He has to know that even a clean war - a war fought with laser beams, long range missles, high flying bombers, and remote controls - can get down and dirty, especially for the other side.

We forget there are mothers on the other side. I've often wondered about the mothers of Vietnamese children like this one, burned by American napalm. Or Afghan mothers, whose children were smashed and broken by American bombs.

On the NBC Nightly News one evening I saw this exclusive report from Afghanistan - those little white lights are heat images of people on foot. They're about to be attacked.

That fellow running out in the open - were he and the people killed members of Al Qaeda, or just coming to worship?

We'll never know. But surely their mothers do. And there will be mothers like them in Iraq. Saddam won't mind - dead or alive; and we won't mind, either. The spoils of victory include amnesia.

Ah, the glories of war; the adrenaline that flows to men behind desks at the very thought of the armies that will march, the missiles that will fly, the ships that will sail, on their command. Our Secretary of Defense has a plaque on his desk that says, "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." I don't think so.

To launch an armada against Hussein's own hostages, a people who have not fired a shot at us in anger, seems a crude and poor alternative to shrewd, disciplined diplomacy.

Don't get me wrong. Vietnam didn't make me a dove; it made me read the Constitution. That's all. Government's first obligation is to defend its citizens. There's nothing in the Constitution that says it's permissible for a great nation to go hunting for Hussein by killing the people he holds hostage, his own people, who have no choice in the matter, who have done us no harm.

Unprovoked, the noble sport of war becomes the murder of the innocent.

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