Editorial: Supporting Our Troops—All of Them

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday October 16, 2007

We get letters from all over the world in response to what appears on our pages, particularly on our opinion pages. We get letters in which the writers unburden themselves of their opinions about Berkeley in general, or about what they believe Berkeley to be. And we get many letters in which the writers reveal their opinions about the fate of the nation or the world, which they send hoping a Berkeley paper will print when their hometown papers haven’t.  

We also get what I call “robo-letters”, generated by some mysterious fill-in-the-blanks web page—sometimes the text of these letters is identical, sometimes only the titles are. Sometimes they’re obviously intended for a congressperson or the president, not “the editor”. They are easy to spot because they frequently assign inappropriate gender titles (Mr. Susie Jones) to the signatures. Even though we often sympathize with the sentiments expressed, we seldom print these. 

Last week we got a few letters from distant places, and even one from Berkeley, applauding the well-written commentary we printed from the Marine recruiter whose near-campus office was targeted by Code Pink and other anti-war demonstrators. Even though our usual policy is to devote our limited space mainly to local letters, and even though we tend to print only a couple of representative samples from what looks like an organized letter-writing campaign, we’ll be printing most of these, and we’re glad to get them. 

Because the writing style varies a great deal, it’s reasonable to believe that these missives are heartfelt expressions of personal belief, not computer-generated mass mailings, even though there might be some central organization suggesting that they be written. The over-arching theme is that the writers support the role played by the armed forces of the United States in maintaining the security of the nation from foreign invasion, a legitimate sentiment it’s hard to criticize.  

We appreciate the traditional freedoms, including freedom of the press, which we enjoy in the United States (even though we remember A.J. Liebling’s crack that the press is only free for those who own them). We’re glad Code Pink picketed the recruiting offices, but we’re also glad the letter writers are able to weigh in with their dissenting points of view.  

It’s true that many of us, including me, have seen dishonest military recruiting in action, but we’ll take the word of Captain Lund, who manages the Marines’ Berkeley recruitment effort, that he doesn’t run his operation that way. But even if one recognizes the bravery and commitment of sincere individuals like Captain Lund, it’s legitimate to ask him and his supporters if they’re also aware of the dangers to what we value about this nation which are coming from inside the country.  

There’s been news in the last week or so about the Defense Department’s use and abuse of a device called a National Security Letter (NSL), part of the Bush administration’s USA Patriot Act. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “a comprehensive analysis of 455 NSLs issued after 9/11 shows that the Defense Department seems to have collaborated with the FBI to circumvent the law, may have overstepped its legal authority to obtain financial and credit records, provided misleading information to Congress, and silenced NSL recipients from speaking out about the records’ requests.” In other words, the Pentagon’s been doing some illegal spying on Americans, and that’s not what this country is supposed to be all about. Now we hope to get letters from Captain Lund and/or his supporters acknowledging that real Americans don’t join the military in order to be able look at their fellow citizens’ bank records. 

Much more important is the central purpose of the armed forces: to protect this country from real military threats from abroad. Captain Lund, I strongly suspect, is intelligent enough to realize that invading Iraq had very little connection with the problem it purported to solve, the attack by al Qaeda on the World Trade Center. I’d bet that like most Americans he knows by now that Osama bin Laden is alive and well and living in Afghanistan, and that we’ll never be able to catch him as long as our troops are tied down by the pointless exercise in Iraq.  

One reason we maintain our respect for the armed forces of the United States is that at crucial historic points American service personnel have sometimes been willing to speak truth to power when they think things are off course. The fifty black sailors who refused to resume dangerous munitions loading at Port Chicago during World War II have finally been recognized as heroes more than a half-century later. Young John Kerry was an inspiring figure when he spoke up in 1971 for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  

And now we have the example of Lt. Ehren Watada before us. Even though he’s a loyal officer and no pacifist, he’s refused to serve in Iraq because he believes that it’s a criminal war and that participating in any way would be the same as aiding and abetting a crime. He’s offered to go to Afghanistan, where the U.S. military effort is floundering, but he’s been turned down. His second court martial trial (the first ended in a mistrial) was supposed to begin last week, though it’s now been postponed by a federal judge in the civil court system until at least October 26. 

Readers who have had their attention directed to this paper because of Captain Lund’s encounter with Code Pink should also familiarize themselves with Lt. Watada’s case. There’s a website, thank-yoult.org, which is maintained by his supporters for this purpose.  

We had the occasion recently to talk with some visitors from Spain who drove to Yosemite last weekend. As inhabitants of a nation where at least four diverse ethnic groups are frequently at odds with one another, sometimes violently, they were touched by seeing our national flag flying at many rural homes on the route. They said they admired the way the American nation sticks together despite our differences of political opinions.  

That’s an important point, one which we are sometimes inclined to forget. There’s more than one way to be a patriot, more than one way to fly the flag, and we should appreciate all of them. Captain Lund has spoken up for the conventional way, and Lt. Watada is providing a different perspective, but both deserve our respect and even our gratitude, even when we disagree with them.