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The Order of Saint William

Sean Gonsalves

Got an email recently that argued - actually SHOUTED - the reason I am able to write the "tripe" that I do is because of the people like John McCain.

My correspondent had a few other choice words for me too, which essentially implied that I owed my very life - not to my Creator or my parents - but to the god of mars.

It's hard to know how to respond that kind of jingoism.

Never mind the millennia-old biblical tradition in Christianity that sees this kind of all-hail-the-military sentiment idolatrous worship of the state. People who are not willing to consider the huge difference between critiquing soldiers and the policies of their civilian bosses; folks who blur the important distinction between defense and pre-emptive offense; people who confuse "way of life" with Life Itself aren't interested in an intellectually honest exchange of anything, much less a serious discussion about the complexities of conflict and cooperation.

And people who do not understand that, short of genocide, there are NO military solutions to guerrilla insurgencies -- that, short of total annihilation, occupying armies always lose to the native rebels -- aren't familiar with the history of guerrilla warfare. So why bother? I've long stopped trying to convert true believers.

Of course, there's a nugget of truth in what my letter-writer is talking about, in so far as the military can, and does, protect all of us from real danger. And though I consider myself a violent person reaching for the Gandhi ideal, I'm not calling for unilateral disarmament.

On a more down-to-earth level, the real problem with the letter-writer's assertion is: laying aside the debate about whether Japan and Germany had the ability to "take over" America and make us all speak Japanese or German, the last time the U.S. military fought a truly defensive war - one that involved an actual existential threat to the Union - was the Civil War. Every other war I can think of has been waged for ideological reasons justified on "moral" grounds.

But, if before the altar of warrior worship we must bow, then I nominate Lt. Gen. William Odom for saintly status.

He died in May but was buried last week in the Arlington National Cemetery. A Vietnam veteran, Odom was considered one of this nation's leading Sovietologists, serving on President Carter's National Security Council and as head of the National Security Agency under President Reagan. He's authored a number of highly-acclaimed books on intelligence and the Soviet military during his academic career at Yale University.

Over the last years of his life, he made a name for himself for being one of the most strident insider-critics of the war in Iraq, which he first aired in the Washington Post in the weeks before the invasion.

As noted by David Froomkin, deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project and columnist for, NPR aired an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski right after Odom died that offered a concise insight on the Lt. General's career.

"I think what was decisive for him was his own experience as a soldier, as an officer fighting the Vietnamese war. I think he came to realize that there are some wars that are not winnable in the conventional sense unless a democracy like the United States embarks on total national mobilization and then engages in total national annihilation of the enemy. And he knew that is the kind of thing a democracy would not do. And he saw some real parallels between his own experience in Vietnam, which made him increasingly critical of our war efforts, and the recent war, the ongoing war in Iraq, which he felt very strongly ought to be terminated as soon as possible," Brzezinski said.

Odom's unsentimental clarity and reality-based thinking I challenge any supporter of the U.S. occupation of Iraq to defy. Here's a sample:

April 2004. When Odom was calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, CNN's Lou Dobbs asked him about the people who would be "shocked" to hear him say "it's time to withdraw from Iraq. Why have you - how have you come to that conclusion?"

Odom: "Well, I reached the conclusion before we went in that it was not in the U.S. interest...the issue wasn't whether we would be greeted as liberators when we came in, but how we would be treated six months after we're there. And the idea that we could create a constitutional regime that would be pro-U.S. in a short period of time there struck me as pure fantasy...."

November 2005. In an essay he wrote for Nieman Watchdog, Odom argued that only way to achieve the goal of bringing democracy and stability to the Greater Middle East (assuming that's the real goal).

He wrote: "I believe that stabilizing the region from the Eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan is very much an American interest, one we share with all our allies as well as with several other countries, especially, China, Russia, and India. But the ill will created by our unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq...has shattered our ability to create a cooperative approach to stabilizing this region. Only a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could win back the support of our allies and a few others for a joint approach to the region...The invasion of Iraq may well turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in American history. In any event, the longer we stay, the worse it will be. Until that is understood, we will make no progress with our allies or in devising a promising alternative strategy."

March 2006. Odom wrote about the lessons we should have learned in Vietnam. "Will Phase Three in Iraq end with helicopters flying out of the 'green zone' in Baghdad? It all sounds so familiar. The difference lies in the consequences. Vietnam did not have the devastating effects on U.S. power that Iraq is already having."

July 2006. He wrote: "We should have learned a number of things from the Vietnam War, but most of all that unintended consequences are often the most significant outcomes. Our well-intended policies in Vietnam soon rendered the United States incapable of accomplishing anything positive in the region. Massive use of American combat power justified all of the extremism that North Vietnam used in pursuing its course, and most important, it removed all doubt about who could claim the banner of 'national liberation' in Vietnam. The Saigon government was soon seen as no more than America's lackey."

Now, we have Iraqi Prime Minister Mal-lackey.

"Withdrawal from Vietnam actually improved America's strategic position for turning the tide against the Soviet Union, beginning during the Carter administration and accelerating during the Reagan administration....The domino theory, invoked to avoid 'tactical defeats,' can easily obscure the wisdom of a strategic withdrawal and instead pave the way to 'strategic defeat.'"

May 2008. In his final piece for the Post he sounded an alarm about the Bush vision on Iran; a vision shared by McSame - ooops, I mean, McCain.

"Current U.S. policy toward the regime in Tehran will almost certainly result in an Iran with nuclear weapons....The United States would have a better chance of success if the White House abandoned its threats of military action and its calls for regime change...A successful approach to Iran has to accommodate its security interests and ours. Neither a U.S. air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities nor a less effective Israeli one could do more than merely set back Iran's nuclear program."

Either way, Odom argued, the U.S. "would have to pay the price resulting from likely Iranian reactions. These would almost certainly involve destabilizing the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan, and serious efforts to disrupt the flow of oil, at the very least generating a massive increase in its already high cost."

If before the altar of warrior worship we must bow, consider me part of the order of Saint William.

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Sean Gonsalves is an assistant news editor and columnist with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at

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