Those who bite their tongues despite internal doubt do no service to the troops, or to their country.

And yet, in 1846 and 1847, when President James K. Polk led the United States into war with Mexico, Abraham Lincoln had bitterly attacked the war. "The blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against (Polk)," Lincoln said.

As a member of Congress, he voted for a resolution attacking the war as "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States."

I think of Lincoln every time I hear a suggestion that "disloyal" protesters should be shipped out to Iraq. I understand the emotional reaction of many citizens. And at least they are sincere.

Politicians too are cynically anxious to silence their opponents.

"Fermez la bouche!" ("Shut up!") said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, when Sen. Tom Daschle suggested that the Administration's diplomacy might have been ever-so-slightly incompetent during the runup to the war. House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested in effect that Daschle had committed treason.

Such demagoguery infuriated Lincoln. When Sen. Stephen Douglas wouldn't stop attacking his patriotism, Lincoln physically dragged one of Douglas' supporters out of the crowd at a debate and forced the man to admit to the truth. "Whenever there was an attempt to procure a vote of mine which would indorse the origin and justice of the war, I refused to give such indorsement, and voted against it," Lincoln said angrily, "but I never voted against the supplies for the army."

Every American war has produced dissent, and sometimes dissenters are right. During the Mexican War, Lincoln's criticism was echoed by Henry David Thoreau (who went to jail for resisting war taxation), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and former president John Quincy Adams, the Jimmy Carter of his day. The war was a disaster for our country and helped spark the Civil War a few years later. As for the cause in Mexico, even Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who fought bravely at Palo Alto, Monterrey and Chapultepec, later wrote that the war had been "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

Operation Iraqi Freedom may be the dawn of a bright new day for the Middle East — or it may mark the beginning of world turmoil. Because we cannot know, dissenters must continue to raise uncomfortable questions. Have we damaged the United Nations and our relations with historic allies for little genuine gain? Will the new Iraq be a true democracy, or a client state ruled by a Saddam Lite? Will the oil fields be used to rebuild a prosperous Iraq, or to power a new Gilded Age of waste and profiteering? The answers will determine the kind of world our grandchildren will live in. The questions must be asked now.

Those who bite their tongues despite internal doubt do no service to the troops, or to their country.

Support the troops? Yes, to be sure. The men and women of the armed forces are our neighbors. We must make sure our government does everything it can to keep them safe and bring them home. But we must also make sure their sacrifice is not wasted; we must debate the origins and conduct of the war, and the shape of the peace that will follow. That debate will be disturbing for many of us, but it is that messy freedom that our troops are fighting to preserve. We could do worse than follow Lincoln's example. True, he never attained the stature of Tom DeLay, but still, he turned out to be a pretty good American. S

© Garrett Epps, 2003.

Garrett Epps teaches constitutional law at the University of Oregon. His most recent book is "To an Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial."

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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