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Jesse Jackson and the Pentagon have opened up debates that will help renew America

Reverend Jesse Jackson, Bronx Baptist Church

Reverend Jesse Jackson addresses Bronx Baptist Church parishioners in New York City on October 5th, 1983.

Yvonne Hemsey/Getty

Americans change their minds about things. With a restless vitality that probably saves us from becoming a decadent nation, we claim the right to redefine ourselves in startling ways, confounding the settled realities of politics. Children of working-class Democrats grow up to become conscientious conservatives, while the favored sons and daughters of country-club Republicans end up as bleeding-heart liberals. Women decide, after generations of faithfully following their husbands’ political preferences, to vote their own convictions. The landscape is forever being altered, as conventional assumptions are discarded and stereotypes break down.

This is the saving genius of the American system, the quality that reinvigorates our politics just when we think everything is static. It’s the reason I remain optimistic in even the gloomiest moments; as long as that dynamic tumbling continues among us, I can still believe in the possibilities of democracy. When people or groups undergo these changes, they invent new questions that the political order must answer. And, always, we learn something from one another’s questions.

Last year, for instance, the Catholic bishops of America shattered some political myths with their courageous pastoral letter on nuclear war. For generations, Catholics had been counted as reliably pro-military, superpatriots who would always rally to the flag. Now the leaders of the Church were posing the most difficult moral questions about America’s nuclear arsenal and our strategies for using it. Suddenly, everything was different. And most politicians recognize that as the bishops raise their questions in every parish and parochial school, the politics of war and peace may be profoundly altered.

In much the same manner, our political life was greatly enriched in recent weeks by two very different events, one accidental and fleeting, the other fundamental and long-lasting: the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s mission to Syria and the devastating report from the Pentagon commission of inquiry on the terrorist bombing that killed 241 marines in Beirut last fall. Just as the black preacher stunned the political community by actually negotiating the release of the captured navy flier, Lieutenant Robert O. Goodman Jr., the commission — which included a retired admiral and three generals — also shocked Washington with its courageous conclusion: President Reagan has a wrong military policy in Lebanon. After these military leaders said this, cautious pols — including Walter Mondale—suddenly found the guts to agree.

These things are not supposed to happen — a black preacher, recognized mainly for his glibness, meddling in the affairs of state; professional military officers publically dissenting on official policy. Both events scrambled old stereotypes and injected new chemistry into the public debate. Both events also underscored a deeper sense of morality that has been churning beneath the surface.

Consider Jesse Jackson’s brilliant gamble. It no doubt enhances his stature as a presidential candidate, but its most important impact lies deeper — the lessons on race and diplomacy taught by this theater. The core of racism, after all, is an inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate among those of another race; to put it more crudely, it is the tendency of white Americans to see a potential mugger every time they pass a black person on the street. The rich tableau created on network television by Jackson’s adventure brilliantly contradicted those bigoted mind sets on several levels.

Lieutenant Goodman appeared to be an efficiently packaged straight arrow, clearly uncomfortable with the political content of the event and wary of Jackson’s flamboyant reputation. His parents are middle class and anxious to avoid racial labeling. Let’s not say black or white, his mother insists, say American. Finally, just about the time white racists are (perhaps in spite of themselves) feeling comfortable with the Goodmans, the lieutenant’s wife appears on the screen—and she is white. Is America ready for heroes with interracial marriages? Apparently so.

Beyond the racial content, it seems to me that Jackson said the right thing about his venture. He acknowledged the political benefits at stake but insisted upon the “moral purpose” of his mission. That purpose, he explained, was to demonstrate that talking face-to-face with the other side can be more effective than the random use of force invoked by Reagan.

The Pentagon’s investigation of the October massacre of marines in Beirut made less exciting TV footage than the Jackson foray but, in the long run, it reflected a much more fundamental shift in our political dialogue—a new willingness by military leaders to dissent openly when they recognize an ill-fated military strategy devised by civilian policymakers. The commission of inquiry was chaired by Admiral Robert L.J. Long, recently retired after forty years in the navy, former vice-chief of naval operations and commander in the Pacific. His colleagues included a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a former marine chief of staff and an active-duty lieutenant general from the army who is presently deputy commander in the Pacific. Clearly, these are not eccentric rebels or lightweights chosen from down in the ranks.

Most of the Long Commission report and most of the news coverage afterward focused on assigning blame within the officer corps for failure to protect the marine out-post against the threat of a terrorist attack. That sort of after-action inquiry has a long and honorable tradition in the military. What was different this time — unprecedented, according to the military historians I consulted — was the commission’s conclusion about the president’s use of troops in Lebanon. It said that the White House was incorrectly relying on military options in a deteriorating situation where only diplomatic solutions would be feasible — not so different, actually, from what Jesse Jackson was trying to say.

“The commission therefore concludes that there is an urgent need for reassessment of alternative means to achieve U.S. objectives in Lebanon and at the same time reduce the risk to the U.S. Multinational Force,” the report said. “The commission recommends that the secretary of defense continue to urge that the National Security Council undertake a reexamination of alternative means of achieving U.S. objectives in Lebanon, to include a comprehensive assessment of the military-security options being developed by the chain of command and a more vigorous and demanding approach to pursuing diplomatic alternatives.” That sounds polite, but the message to the White House was clear: It’s not working, Mr. President — get the marines out of Lebanon.

Generals and admirals, captains and colonels, suffer from inaccurate political stereotyping as blacks and Catholic bishops often do. The image of military commanders fostered by Vietnam and accepted so fervently by the antiwar movement was that of a bloodthirsty gang who prosecuted that unsuccessful war of attrition with relish, oblivious to the consequences. Inside the military, however, the failure in Vietnam provoked a terrific moral dilemma that is now expressing itself. Officers asked themselves: How did this tragedy occur? What was our responsibility for preventing it?

Ten years later, the result is informally known in military circles as “the Never Again Club.” Last summer, when he retired, General E.C. Meyer, the army chief of staff, revealed that he considers himself a member. “I am concerned,” General Meyer said, “about having soldiers at the end of a string without the support of the American people.”

“Never again” means several things to the men who commanded ground troops in Indochina and who are now colonels and even generals. It means that the United States must refrain from committing troops to foreign war without first explaining to the American people the purposes and costs of that venture and winning the nation’s full support. It means that senior officers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff themselves, have an obligation not to acquiesce silently, as they did during the Vietnam War, to military strategies that they know are flawed or misrepresented in the public debate.

Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr., who teaches military strategy at the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, is one of those who has articulated the new attitudes shared by so many of his fellow officers. During the gradual U.S. escalation in Vietnam, “the Joint Chiefs, led by General Earle Wheeler, strongly questioned the White House’s approach in private,” wrote Summers, “but Johnson (and Nixon) rarely consulted them directly. The Chiefs acquiesced in presidential mismanagement of the war . . . . …But the military leaders could have best served their country in early 1965 by dramatically protesting against the president’s policies. By quietly threatening to resign, for instance, the Chiefs might have forced the commander in chief to adopt a winning strategy in Indochina.…Or, failing that, the [Joint Chiefs] could have brought the dispute before the American people and spurred a national debate on the war before a major commitment put a half million U.S. troops into battle without a strategy.”

In essence, that is what the Long Commission accomplished for us in the present situation in Lebanon. By expressing their doubts so directly, the admiral and generals legitimized a political debate that was desperately needed before the Reagan White House stumbled into a greater conflict.

“The students I teach at the War College were lieutenants and captains during Vietnam,” Summers explained. “They feel, to some degree, there was a failure of moral courage on the part of the military leaders at the time of Vietnam, a failure to stand up and be counted.”

Never again, they promise themselves. General Fred Weyand, former army chief of staff, once put it this way: “As military professionals we must speak out, we must counsel our political leaders and alert the American people that there is no such thing as a ‘splendid little war.’ There is no such thing as a war fought on the cheap. War is death and destruction.”

Obviously, this democracy would be in deep trouble if military leaders tried to usurp the authority of their civilian superiors, but nobody wants that, least of all the generals and admirals. They are talking about assuming moral responsibility for their own actions with an honorable alternative: If you think the government’s war policy is wrong, say so and resign. Colonel Summers, among others, believes this will actually strengthen citizen control over warmaking by compelling the politicians to speak more clearly to the people before they declare war. “The army is an instrument of the people, not just the government,” Summers said. “This is almost a revalidation of the Constitution.”

Some hawkish civilians in the Reagan administration actually grumble now about the “pacifist Pentagon,” but military historians argue that this has always been so — that military professionals are always more reluctant than civilians to engage in actual combat because they are more familiar with the real consequencies. For the post-Vietnam officer corps, the crucial corollary is this: If the commander in chief wants to go to war, if the public fully endorses the purpose and Congress is willing to enact a formal declaration of hostilities, then this country should pursue that conflict full-bore.

As soldiers like to say, there are some things worse than war. That’s probably true, but if the full costs were stated up front to the American people, I doubt that many of our potential wars around the globe would be regarded as attractive options.

While the Long Commission spoke at length about the threat of “state-sponsored terrorism” in the Middle East, it did not venture into that other combat zone where the U.S. government itself is financing its own version of “state-sponsored terrorism”: Central America. The CIA-supported contras attacking Nicaragua employ different tactics, but there is no moral distinction between their bombs and Moslem bombs. It is in Central America, after all, where these new questions of military responsibility may ultimately encounter their sternest test.

How would American military leaders react, for instance, if the situation deteriorated in El Salvador or Nicaragua to the point where this president felt compelled to intervene with American troops? This is not a farfetched question since many observers foresee a looming crisis, in which Reagan will have to choose between losing his clients or moving in. Yet military leaders like General Meyer have been warning, not so subtly, that sending U.S. troops to fight there would be most costly and impractical. Even if American air power swiftly bombed the Sandinistas and the leftist guerrillas of Salvador into submission, we would be contracting for a long and bloody occupation of those countries.

I can’t believe most Americans would buy that deal. Some authorities are confident that the top military leaders would resist — even that members of the Joint Chiefs would resign in public protest rather than acquiesce again in a gradual escalation that hoodwinks the American public. I hope that is right. I hope, in fact, we don’t have to find out whether it is right.

Either way, the new moral consciousness of “Never Again” ventilates the political process and gives us all political leverage we did not have before. A vote for Jesse Jackson now has deeper meaning. If he does well as a candidate, it will carry an important message to the party leaders. And if military leaders insist upon a united populace before they lead their men into another war, that puts a new premium on antiwar agitation. I’m convinced that another ill-conceived venture like Vietnam would tear this country apart, more swiftly and profoundly than the last time, but I’m not so confident that the policymakers in Washington appreciate that reality. If public protest cannot reach deaf politicians in Congress or the White House, perhaps it should speak to those in the Pentagon who might listen.

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