Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) just apologized for telling the Charlestown Gazette, “John McCain was a fighter pilot who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they get to the ground? He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people.”
Rockefeller is an admirable man who served in the Peace Corps, then settled in West Virginia rather than in an apartment overlooking Central Park because he wanted to use his name and wealth to help that state, long plagued by poverty. So Rockefeller can have a pass for this dopey comment. But his statement regarding McCain reveals many things about Washington culture — all of them negative.
First, Rockefeller’s words betrayed the lack of knowledge of military affairs so common in Washington – including among many Iraq hawks of the George W. Bush administration. To my knowledge no news organization has corrected the factual content of Rockefeller’s statement, which betrays the near-total lack of military knowledge in the current public debate.
McCain was taken prisoner, ending his aviation career, in 1967; the first laser-guided bomb was used in 1972, at Thanh Hao Bridge. Even had laser-guided munitions existed when McCain was flying, he could not have dropped one “from 35,000 feet” — until recently, laser-guided smart bombs had to be released at low altitude, by an aircraft exposed to ground fire. From the advent of laser-guided munitions until recently, far from being “long gone” when the blast occurred, the pilot using such a weapon had to see his target and keep a laser designator trained on the aim point through the missile’s flight.
Second, Rockefeller’s statement incorporates the fallacy, often heard on the left, that a flight crew who deliver bombs is not at risk and sits in antiseptic comfort pushing buttons without contemplating the consequences. There are callous, or even evil, U.S. soldiers – My Lai was only one of many crimes committed by U.S. armed forces. But in the main, U.S. armed forces show more concern with not harming the innocent than has any military organization in history. I’ve interviewed military pilots, and found them intensely concerned with the moral ramifications of what they do. Maybe aboard U.S. bombers over Vietnam there were some yahoos who laughed while pressing buttons. But my guess is that most worried every day about the disposition of their souls. And having surface-to-air missiles fired at you is no antiseptic experience: after all, McCain became a captive because he was shot down.
Third, McCain and his fellow pilots were above North Vietnam because Congress sent them there. They did not make up the mission themselves. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has ultimate authority for starting and stopping wars: Congress never declared war on North Vietnam, but could have stopped the fighting at any time by denying funding.
Rockefeller wasn’t a member of the Senate during the Vietnam years. But today, U.S. forces are in Iraq because Congress sent them there, and Rockefeller is among those who voted in favor of the joint resolution authorizing the invasion. (Hereis the roster of all those who voted nay.) For a member of Congress to vote to send U.S. bombers to attack another nation, then sneer at the honor of those who fly military planes, is highfalutin hypocrisy. The Congress bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of our men and women under arms. Hereis the October 2002 joint congressional resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Give it a read in light of what is now known. Needless to say, the resolution cites banned weapons as a justification for war; we can stipulate this was a reasonable belief at the time. Other justifications for war cited include that “members of Al Qaeda… are known to be in Iraq.” Whether this was true then or not, members of Al Qaeda are known to be in Britain; is the presence in a country of individual criminals a justification for invasion?
The resolution contains such strange complaints as that Baghdad “fail[ed] to return property wrongfully seized by Iraq from Kuwait” and actually says there is risk Iraq will “launch a surprise attack against the United States.” Iraq had no navy, long-range aircraft or intercontinental missiles; it would have been physically impossible for Iraq to attack America. In light of subsequent events and knowledge, the resolution, which passed 77-23 in the Senate and 296-133 in the House, seems close to demented. Look at Section 3, clause A. This is the key component of the resolution, authorizing war in Iraq for two reasons. To:
(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and
(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.
Reason (2) has long since been satisfied.
Is there even one person who believes Iraq now poses a “continuing threat” to the national security of the United States? The original war justifications as voted by Congress have expired. Yet the war drags on and Congress takes no action beyond voting more money. Though, senators feel free to insult the pilots who risk their lives by flying the missions Congress requires.
Gregg Easterbrook www.greggeasterbrook.com is a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic, a fellow of the Brookings Institution, a columnist for ESPN.com and author, most recently, of “The Progress Paradox.”