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The nation's call to serve

Published Sep. 2, 2005

When Karl Rove, the president's most important political counselor, talks, Republicans have learned to pay close attention. Rove told a roomful of attentive party leaders that in 2002 the GOP "can go to the country" on the war on terrorism "because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might."

Which is exactly what the National Republican Senatorial Committee was doing when, in support of Senate challenger Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., it aired TV spots attacking Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., as soft on defense in wartime.

To Republicans, there was in this line of attack one major weakness _ beyond the fact that between Johnson and Thune there is only one honorable discharge from U.S. military service and that it does not belong to Thune. The problem: Rove never met Sgt. Brooks Johnson of the 101st Airborne who _ after tours in Kosovo, Bosnia, Korea and Germany _ is now living with his M-16 in a foxhole just outside of downtown Kandahar, Afghanistan.

You really couldn't blame GOP politicos for not knowing that Sen. Tim and Barbara Johnson's son had enlisted in the Airborne _ yes, that means you volunteer to jump from flying aircraft _ and had then turned down a coveted appointment to recruiter school so he could go to Afghanistan with the men of his unit. After all, of the 1,155,316 enlisted men and women on active duty today in the U.S. military, not one _ other than Sgt. Brooks Johnson _ is the child of a U.S. senator.

To be fair, Air Force Maj. Bill Bunning, an officer and son of the Kentucky Republican senator, is also on active duty.

What a difference a war makes. In World War II, Marine Sgt. Peter G. Saltonstall, son of the Massachusetts Republican senator, Lt. Peter G. Lehman, son of New York's Democratic governor, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., son of the U.S. ambassador to England, and 18-year-old Stephen Hopkins, the son of FDR's most important counselor, all were killed in combat. Baseball greats Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Lewis joined Hollywood stars Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart and the president's own four sons in uniform. Speaking of Republicans, U.S. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass., actually resigned from the Senate in order to become a tank commander to fight the Germans.

What makes the recent mini-debate over the administration's policy in the war on terrorism interesting and probably important is that Republican politicians such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R- Miss. _ whom according to Rove voters trust "to do a better job of strengthening and protecting America's military might" _ have been quick to criticize and even condemn Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., both of whom during Vietnam answered their country's call to serve.

Kerry took off the gloves in a New Hampshire speech where the much decorated combat hero confronted his critics: "Let me be clear tonight to Sen. Lott and to Tom DeLay. One of the lessons that I learned in Vietnam, a war they did not have to endure . . . was that if I ever reached a position of responsibility, I would never stop asking questions that make a democracy strong."

That exchange prompted Marshall Wittman, the conservative iconoclast, to note the irony that "today, the left is implicitly accusing the right of draft dodging! Both DeLay and Lott apparently found other things to do than to fight in a war they supported." Wittman added, "It is striking that virtually all the GOP draft-age leadership did not serve in uniform in Vietnam. . . . It is ironic that those who proclaim themselves the most fervent defenders of freedom missed freedom's call."

Public debate over this war is long overdue. Wars cost in blood and in treasure. War is not a spectator sport. Patriotism can be painful and fatal. We must debate, decide and determine who will do the fighting and who will do the dying. Will the children of privilege, the offspring of senators and Cabinet officers, continue to be exempt from any responsibility to defend this country which has been so good to them?

Before the young widows once again begin their sorrowful climb up the hills of Arlington Cemetery to bury the fathers of their young children, we must have that full and free public debate. And as part of that debate, the Congress must confront its own constitutional responsibility and debate a formal declaration of war, which would define the individual and reciprocal obligations all citizens now owe to the nation and to each other. Brooks Johnson has answered his nation's call. Now it is our turn.

Mark Shields is a syndicated columnist and an analyst for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Mark Shields