On the last day of the Wisconsin Book Festival, Tim O'Brien joined a panel discussion on civic life and politics that, as is appropriate in these times, devoted a good deal of time to the current war in Iraq.
O'Brien - author of the acclaimed novels "Going After Cacciato," "The Things They Carried" and "In the Lake of the Woods" - is a Vietnam veteran. And he has some firm ideas about the duty of political leaders in a time of war.
On Sunday, bemoaning the lack of serious debate about matters of war and peace, O'Brien offered a modest proposal. Recalling that traditionally, those who declared wars then led the troops into battle, he suggested that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and members of Congress ought to ship out to Iraq, or ship their children off to the front lines.
Officials who declare and support wars ought to be afforded an opportunity to back up their rhetoric with a physical commitment, O'Brien explained. Or they could send their sons, daughters and grandkids.
The prospect that presidents, vice presidents, defense secretaries and members of Congress might - along with their loved ones - be suiting up for combat would, the author allowed, lend a very different flavor to the discourse.
O'Brien was, of course, correct. And the crowd at the Orpheum Theatre clearly loved what he had to say.
But as I listened to his proposal, I was struck by the notion that the debate would take an even more interesting turn if the executives of defense contractors and their economic children - investors in those firms - also headed for the front lines.
Just think of it. Halliburton lands a hefty contract in Iraq, and the CEO of the company gets to lead a platoon of stockholders into battle. Bechtel accepts a check from the Pentagon, and all the executive vice presidents trade their suits and ties for fatigues.
The concept is not a new one. During World War I, U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette, U.S. Rep. Victor Berger and other Wisconsin members of Congress who opposed that war cried out for sanctions against the war profiteers, whose noisy support for that war was matched only by their enthusiasm for the economic largesse it brought them. La Follette, Berger and other Midwestern progressive populists crusaded against the munitions merchants who, they argued, lobbied for war not because it was necessary but because it was profitable.
The fiercest critic of the profiteers was A.C. Townley, the most prominent organizer of the North Dakota Non-Partisan League, which, like the Wisconsin Progressive movement and the Minnesota Farmer-Labor movement, challenged big business at home and military adventurism abroad. "(If profiteering is permitted,) we are working not to beat the enemy, but to make more multi-millionaires," argued Townley, who proposed taking first the profits and then the assets of munitions makers to pay for the war.
In June 1917, long before O'Brien was born, Townley asked a crowd at Buffalo Lake, N.D., "Who started this war? I will tell you who started this war. It was the big-bellied, red-necked plutocrats.
"And I will tell you how to stop this war. Place these big-bellied, red-necked plutocrats in the line of battle. Their big bellies will stop more bullets than the bodies of (the) slim young men they are taking from our families.
"But this is not the reason why the war would stop. It is because they would not stand for being targets of German bullets. These big-bellied, red-necked plutocrats would take care of their precious bodies by seeing that U.S. participation in this war were brought to a close."
True words in 1917. Truer still in 2003.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times