The average American understands that soldiers who fought in Vietnam were unfairly blamed for a war they did not start, for lies they did not tell, for mismanaged battle plans they could not salvage. So we're determined not to make that mistake again. This time around, most of us salute our soldiers.
Even determined peace activists, for the most part, are committed to two things - ending American involvement in Iraq and honoring the soldiers who volunteered to serve there. In a bitterly divided country, the vast majority of us agree that rank-and-file troops should not be held accountable for the politics that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Ironically, there is something else most of us agree on, whether in red states or blue: We don't want our loved ones to go to war.
Three years ago, when the invasion of Iraq was still widely supported in the United States, the prospect of a military draft was not. Whether Democrats, Republicans or independents, most Americans - especially among the affluent classes - were virulently opposed to the idea that their sons and daughters might be forced to serve the nation's military. We still are.
The politics of discussing a draft became this weird during the last election cycle: Conservatives savaged anybody who suggested the possibility of military conscription as a whiny appeaser who really wanted to end the war. OK. Let's unravel that.
If it is a given that a draft would have been so unpopular that it would have ended support for the war in Iraq, what does that say? Doesn't it suggest that many of those who so easily supported this war in the beginning did so because it didn't affect them or their families?
Military recruits are pulled largely from the nation's working class - from those whose economic prospects are less than stellar, from high school graduates who know they have little chance of affording college tuition, from young parents whose civilian jobs don't come with health insurance. Enlisted men and women tend to come from households earning $32,000 to $33,500, according to a 1999 Defense Department study. (The median American income is $43,300.) This is not a truth the middle class is eager to confront.
Ah, but they volunteered, you say. Yes, they did. All the more reason to honor their commitment by making sure they aren't cannon fodder in a dubious cause. They took to heart the common platitudes and easy slogans about duty and honor and service while many who are wealthier did not. Soldiers shouldn't be ill-used simply because they believed in their country and its leaders.
And they have been ill-used. They were sent to fight on a false pretext - that Mr. Hussein was linked to 9/11 - by civilian leaders who refused to plan for anything but quick and certain victory.
Of course, combat veterans were rare among the armchair hawks in Congress and the White House who rallied the nation for war. Vice President Dick Cheney has said he had "other priorities" during the war in Vietnam. And President Bush ... well, that story is well known. Even if you credit him with conscientiousness and brilliance as a National Guard pilot, he never left the United States.
Their callousness about other people's children aside, it's not just Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush whom I hold responsible for the deaths of more than 2,300 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. It's also men such as Sen. John Kerry and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Vietnam veterans who had seen young men die in combat. They knew better than to take the nation to war on the wings of a lie.
That they did was not only unjust, it was immoral.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
© 2006 The Baltimore Sun