When I was a young man I used to play mental games with myself. One of my favorites was to take a situation, one in which I was involved or one which I had observed, and try to imagine what author might have conceived and written it. Thus, when I had a particularly bad day, laden with irony, I would often imagine that Kurt Vonnegut or Woody Allen had been scripting my life. Other days, I might have opted for Alfred Hitchcock or Ray Bradbury.
Recently, I have found myself playing this game again. Now, however, I find myself trying to imagine what author might be scripting the various statements and speeches made by the presidential candidates. More and more I am coming to believe that Lewis Carroll is alive and well and working as a political strategist in Washington for both parties.
Take, for instance, the matter of the "war on terrorism." Why precisely is this a war? Why is it not a "police action" as was the Korean conflict? To call something a war is very significant. The idea of war carries with it heavy connotations and consequences. But this is like no war we've fought before. There is no clear enemy. We speak of al-Qaida as the "enemy," but it seems as if most terrorist incidents are now attributed to "independent" terrorist groups.
We've fought terrorists before. I remember the fights against the Bader Meinhoff terrorist group in the '60s and against the South American Marxist terrorists led by Che Guevara in the '60s and '70s. Why were these not wars as well? And yet, Americans are being asked to accept all of the deprivations -- loss of civil liberties, sacrifice of sons and daughters -- that go with a true war. Is this simply a case of the rhetoric being raised to foster a different response from the American people
What has changed?
In the 1960s it was acceptable to criticize the government for the way it was conducting actions against terrorists without being branded unpatriotic. Why has this changed now? What, precisely, does it take to make a war? When terrorists blew up the World Trade Center in 1993 we didn't go to war. When Marines were killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut, we struck back, but we didn't "go to war." What is different now? Has the notion of war suddenly taken up residence in Wonderland where words can mean anything we want them too, regardless of the consequences?
Then, of course, there's the whole revival of discussions about Vietnam in the current presidential campaign. The Vietnam War was an American tragedy. Tens of thousands of Americans fought for their country and were criticized by other Americans for doing so. Instead of being honored for their sacrifices, they were shunned. Additional tens of thousands opposed the war on principled grounds and they, too suffered, albeit in a different way, for their beliefs.
Vietnam wounds still open
Even more than 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the wounds caused by that war are far from healed. We are still too close even to fully discuss the success or failure, let alone the justifications, for that war. Thousands of veterans suffer to this day from that war and its aftermath. And yet now we have two presidential candidates using that war as a political weapon against each other.
Even odder, in a way that would fit easily within Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," we have a president who avoided service in Vietnam, by using influence to get a place in the Air National Guard far from combat, presenting himself as a "war leader" even to the extent of actually riding a jet onto a Navy carrier in a stunt designed to portray himself as a "fighting" president like a character in a John Wayne movie.
We also have an opposing candidate who did fight in Vietnam, apparently bravely, and then, back at home, criticized the war and its conduct, now touting his heroism in that war and downplaying his later antiwar beliefs. It almost seems as if black is white and yes has become no, much as it does in Wonderland. What use does this debate over who did what during the Vietnam War serve in 2004? Should we not focus on the current military and diplomatic situation rather than debate what happened more than 30 years ago?
U.S. at critical juncture
As I listen to this political season's speeches on both sides I find myself increasingly dismayed. We are at a critical juncture in the history of the United States and, perhaps, of the world. The end of the Cold War did not bring lasting peace and prosperity. The world is more unstable and insecure today, I believe, than it was before. The American economy is fragile, and the future holds serious challenges over health care, retirement benefits, energy and many other matters. The time for pretension and empty rhetoric is over. America needs thoughtful leaders who can propose workable solutions to our problems and unify our people, not divide them.
The other day, I had lunch with a friend visiting from Turkey for a few weeks. He has spent a good deal of time in the United States over the past decade and is very pro-American. He is also very concerned with the current tone of American politics. So concerned, in fact, that he asked me whether I thought that the United States might actually break up into several smaller states the way the Soviet Union did because of the polarization he has read about in the news.
He is bothered by a presidential election in which both sides launch attack ads at the other and in which major issues go unmentioned or trivialized. I assured him that this never could happen here, but I was also troubled that an intelligent, pro-American foreign visitor might ask such a question.
Look to the future
I hope that over the next few months both parties and their candidates cease to focus on the past and stop looking for dirt on each other. I hope, instead, that they focus on the future of America and their vision of how to make that future better for all Americans and for the world. Leadership in the 21st century cannot be backward-looking. Leaders must look to the future and not dwell on the past, good or bad. They must do what is needed and what is right for today.
The time has come, I believe, for the candidates to realize that just as the world has changed since 9-11, so must politics, if we are to survive and prosper as a nation.
-- Mike Hoeflich, a professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.