What Does Paul Rieckhoff Want?

Bob Herbert’s column is a synopsis of an interview with the leader of an Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group.

There’s a gigantic and extremely disturbing disconnect, he says, between the experiences of the men and women in uniform and the perspective of people here at home. “We have a very diverse membership in I.A.V.A.,” he said. “We’ve got Republicans and Democrats and everything in between. But one of the key things we all have in common is this frustration with the detachment that we see all around us, this idea that we’re at war and everybody else is watching ‘American Idol.’

“It’s tough to have such a serious sense of commitment,” Mr. Rieckhoff said, “and then come home and see so many people focused on such frivolous things. So I think that frustration is serious and growing. And I’ll tell you the truth: I blame the president for that. One of the biggest criticisms of the president, and I hear this across the board, is that he hasn’t asked the American people to do anything.”

Although Bush has spoken over and over again about how important he thinks the war is to the U.S. national interest, I agree that he could have done more to promote a sense of shared sacrifice. He could have raised taxes to finance the war effort, called on young people to enlist in the armed forces (or as humanitarian workers), and promoted conservation and alternative energies at home (fat chance!) to limit the country’s dependence on Middle East oil.

But even if Americans had been drawn into these efforts in greater numbers, there is always going to be some amount of disconnect between those who were at war and the majority who stayed home. That is inevitably going to be the case when you have a group of people who have first-hand experience with something and a group that does not. There may be some ignorance of what troops go through, but there certainly isn’t a lack of sympathy and gratitude for members of the armed forces. That’s why the Walter Reed situation became such a big scandal. Anyone who challenges the “support the troops” consensus these days will be pretty loudly denounced.

What I don’t understand is why it bothers Rieckhoff that Americans are into “frivolous things” like “American Idol.” While I agree that American Idol is stupid, I’m not going to give up my evening leisure time watching the NBA playoffs so that I can hold a vigil for the troops and educate myself further about the progress of the surge in Baghdad.

Look, I hope the troops get home safely and that they aren’t unduly traumatized by the combat experience. I don’t think they should ever have been sent to war with Iraq, and I think their presence over there continues to be counterproductive today. I will continue to monitor the news from the war with the hope that somehow U.S. military involvement can be wound down without causing too much harm in the process. I will support candidates for office who share this goal. Beyond that, I don’t really know what Rieckhoff wants me to do, and I don’t see why he needs to snidely belittle the American public.


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