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Eugene McCarthy And The Winds Of Change

by Jack Random

Political Defiance Dead Within The Two Parties

The year 1968 was pivotal in American politics. By year's end, the Vietnam War would claim 30,000 American lives. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a virtual prisoner in the White House and the American people were at last awakening to the fact that America's wars were not always righteous.

While the people were awakening to the nightmare of an unjust, immoral and illegal war, founded on the lie of the Gulf of Tonkin, our politicians in Washington continued to slumber, year after year, until finally Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota rose up to challenge the leader of his own party.

The rolling thunder that began with the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy was subsequently captured by Senator Robert Kennedy, whose march to the White House was abruptly ended by an assassin's bullet in a Los Angeles hotel.

At the brokered convention of 1968, the Democratic Party faced a decision that would define its moral foundation for decades to come: In a stunning rebuke of the democratic process, the party turned its back on the antiwar mandate of Kennedy-McCarthy and nominated Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey. That decision may have nearly doubled the Vietnam casualty list.

The death of Eugene McCarthy is the latest and most powerful reminder that the Democratic Party has lost its moral backbone.

Not unlike 1968, perhaps because the memory of Vietnam still lives in the American psyche, the people have awakened to the nightmare of the Iraq War. We have awakened to the lies that were used to justify and generate support for the war and we are in the process of awakening to the lies that are currently being used to justify our continued occupation.

When the president speaks of victory in Iraq, we are beginning to understand that it is a fantasy, indistinguishable from the light at the end of the Vietnamese tunnel. What does victory look like: A Shiite dominated government with infinitely closer ties to Iran than to the western invaders?

When the president speaks of preventing a civil war, we are beginning to recognize that Iraq is already in the throes of civil war and our soldiers are caught in the crossfire. We are beginning to understand that civil war (absent civil divide) was the inevitable consequence of our intervention. Our continued presence as a proxy army for Shiite dominance and Kurdish autonomy does nothing to douse the flames of insurgency. To the contrary, it only fuels the fire.

When our president warns that Al Qaeda and its allies will take over Iraq, we must wonder why we even considered deposing Saddam if that was ever a realistic possibility. It is not.

We are awakening to the fact that our president is once again crying wolf when the only wolves in the arena are our own. It is the occupation that attracts foreign fighters (by any other name) to Iraq, just as it did (with our encouragement, financing and support) when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. When the occupation is ended, the vast majority of foreign fighters will go home or move on and those that refuse will be routed by the Iraqis in short order.

When the president revives the tired and inept slogan that we must fight the "terrorists" over there so that we do not have to fight them here, we understand that hatred for America and Americans in the Islamic world grows exponentially with every day the occupation continues. We are not safer today; we are only bracing for the next attack.

When the president warns that withdrawal will be perceived by our enemies as weakness, we need only survey the massive destruction we have wrought to know that "weakness" is not a description that will be applied to America. When we look at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, secret East European torture centers, torture renditions, the annihilation of Fallujah, the cleansing operations in the Anbar province, and the continuing, indiscriminate destruction of American bombing campaigns, we understand that the only weakness the world perceives in America is its moral fiber.

Sadly, as it was in the days before Eugene McCarthy, our political leaders are lagging behind the awakening of the people. As it was before McCarthy, members of Congress are dragging their feet, willing to discuss the deceptions that led to war, willing to criticize the conduct of war, but inevitably stopping short of the obvious corrective measure: Unconditional withdrawal.

It is far too easy to oppose the policies of war in the past tense. It is easy to express outrage and moral indignation if the rhetoric is not accompanied by a demand for action.

Representative John Murtha deserves credit for finally bringing the issue of withdrawal to the media spotlight but his solution (a conditional redeployment) was entirely inadequate. The subsequent wholesale abandonment of the antiwar position was a confirmation that the party of opposition is in disarray, lost, dazed, confused and unable to find a common ground in fundamental opposition to an unjust, immoral and illegal war.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean's recent statements, comparing Iraq to Vietnam and proclaiming the war unwinnable, gathered a great deal of attention but his solution was even more tenuous than Murtha's. Listening to Democrats talk about the war is like listening to Condoleezza Rice talk about torture: Within minutes, it becomes indecipherable.

It is perhaps a tribute to American war technology that we have not suffered the loss of lives that we did in Vietnam. It is nevertheless one of the lessons of Vietnam that every life lost is one too many in a cause that is neither just nor worthy of American ideals.

As we pass the one-thousandth day of the Iraq War, it is a good time to reflect on over two thousand soldiers who will never come home. Without regard for the wounded or the Iraqi dead, we are reminded that every day the occupation continues will cost another two of our soldiers' lives. From the next election forward, we will have an objective answer to young John Kerry's famous question before a committee of Congress during Vietnam: How many must die for a mistake?

Sadly, there is no Eugene McCarthy on the political horizon today. Ironically, there is a Bobby Kennedy but he has not yet found his voice in the antiwar cause. Given the family history, no one can blame him for not stepping forward. He is only a Congressman, after all, yet his is the only name in America that could make the jump possible.

We continue to hope against hope that someone will emerge (Feingold, Chafee, Boxer, Edward) as a potent counter to the pro-war Democrats (Biden, Clinton, Warner) but, for the purposes of the midterm elections, that hope is running thin.

It is perhaps equally if not more realistic to hope and work for a challenge outside the major party system: Greens, Libertarians and Independents against the war.

Remember Eugene McCarthy.

"Jack Random" is the author of the Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press 2003) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press)

His last commentary for the Monitor, "Woodward Gambit: Latest Move In The Plame Game," appeared in November

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Albion Monitor December 21, 2005 (

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