Soldiers live with the consequences of war

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, March 20, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

LAWRENCE, Kansas — It was pure coincidence that brought me to the campus of Kansas University on the eve of the first anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. My talk had been scheduled for last fall, but when the business school sponsors discovered that it was also the night of the first home basketball game of the season, they suggested a postponement. I said, "You have your priorities right."

Thus it was that I got my first look at the newly opened Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at a time when the news was dominated by reports and analyses of the U.S. venture in Iraq.

The Institute is a handsome building, set on a hilltop with sweeping vistas in every direction. The archives of the former senator’s long career are out of sight, below the surface. The main hall is filled with wonderful photos and other mementos of his life in and out of politics.

Two photographs are particularly riveting. The first shows Dole as a high school athlete, wearing running shorts, his muscled body almost bursting with energy and optimism.

The second, taken after he had been badly wounded in the fighting in Italy and had begun his long convalescence, shows a wraith — a figure with almost no flesh on his bones and a terribly shattered right arm that would remain an almost useless appendage for the rest of his life.

The thought was inescapable: This is the reality of war, for victors and vanquished alike. There are men — and now, some women, too — in hospitals today enduring the same thing for their country.

Those of us who have watched events in Iraq from a safe distance have the luxury of being able to discuss strategy, intelligence, alliance politics and ethnic-religious rivalries as bloodless abstractions. We can speculate and dispute about the decision-making that led to the war and the planning — or lack of planning — for its aftermath.

Those who fought the war — and continue to fight what we are pleased to term an "insurgency" — have no such privilege.

They are called upon to deal with hard day-to-day reality, including the constant danger that they or their friends and comrades may be torn apart by shrapnel, just as Bob Dole was.

On the flight to Kansas I read last week’s issue of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol’s first-rate conservative magazine. No one was more ardent an advocate of taking on Saddam Hussein’s regime than The Weekly Standard. Not surprisingly, its lead editorial, "Iraq One Year Later," examines the results and finds them good.

The editorial challenges Democratic nominee John Kerry to explain why he voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq and subsequently opposed the $87 billion appropriation for the reconstruction of that country. It is a legitimate question.

But I was struck by the fact that nowhere in this rather long editorial does one find the words "weapons of mass destruction." The parsing of language now on display from administration spokesmen — questioning whether they said the threat was "imminent" or "immediate" — clouds the basic point. Everyone who favored going to war believed Saddam had those weapons, and they cannot be found.

It is possible for skilled advocates such as Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, the co-author of the editorial, simply to slip-slide away from that reality. But the men and women sent into combat to "disarm" Saddam have no such easy out. They live with the consequences — and will for the rest of their lives.

Dole is an inspiration to them, an example of how courage and endurance can overcome even the most grievous of wounds. He came through repeated surgeries and entered political life, where he made his mark in the House, the Senate and finally, on his third try, as the Republican candidate for president in 1996.

Some of those now in military hospitals may be able to serve their country again in public office, as Dole did. Most will bear their scars in anonymity — their sacrifices known only to family and friends in their hometowns.

But on this anniversary — as the debates about "the meaning of Iraq" go on — no one should forget for one minute about the lives that have been changed forever by that war.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to

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