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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Arrogant 'War' Secretary Should Set Off Alarm Bells

Ed Garvey

The arrows or the olive branch? Offense or defense?

The eagle on the Great Seal of the United States faces an olive branch held in its talon-- symbolic of our desire for peace. But the eagle on the seal of the president has, for most of our history, faced the 13 arrows held in the other talon -- showing that we are always ready for war. And we have had more than our share: two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Cold War.

After World War II the War Department became the Defense Department, a name more consistent with our founding of the United Nations. There was genuine hope for peace. We caught a glimpse of the eagle looking at the olive branch.

In a "60 Minutes" interview last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared confused. So confused one hopes he soon returns to Texas. The program began with Katie Couric saying that the "secretary of Defense" calls himself "secretary of war." And so he does throughout the interview, but that didn't bother her. Asked by Couric how he liked his job, his response startled me. "Being secretary of war in a time of war is painful." Still no question about his "title" by the deferential Couric.

I would suggest that Gates is sending a message. He will call his position what he darn well pleases whether the bald eagle looks right or left. It seems to please him to be in charge of war. And since he is in charge of war, we should keep our mouths shut regarding Afghanistan, Korea, and Iraq. He will decide; he will let us know what we need to know.

"This is war!" said Gates in response to a question How long will our 68,000 troops expected to be stationed in Afghanistan by October of this year remain in Afghanistan? He opined that to speculate about the time would be a "fairy story and I don't tell fairy stories."

When asked the lessons to be learned from the fact that we supported the Taliban against the Soviets and are now fighting the Taliban, he said, "History is ironic." Indeed it is.

It is difficult to listen to Gates. His know-it-all arrogance and bellicose pronouncements should set off alarm bells in the State Department if not the White House. The New York Times quotes our Defense secretary on the Korean situation and his view of President Barack Obama as seen from Mount Olympus. He opined that Obama "is hopeful, but he is not naive. ... The United States and our allies are open to dialogue, but we will not bend to pressure or provocation." Sounds more like a president than a secretary. This after he said, "North Korea had (past tense but maybe he meant "has" a choice) a choice to continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course." Not the stuff of olive branches.

Will the secretary of war send troops to Korea? Is part of the irony of history that Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur because MacArthur thought he, not Truman, should be in charge of the Korean War?

More irony from Gates. "We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia." Makes me wonder if he knows that this country, and only this country, "wreaked destruction" with two nuclear bombs in, yes, Asia.

And Gates wants to change the "War Department." He says the Pentagon "must be able to wage war, as we are doing, and at the same time plan for tomorrow's war."

Whoa, Nelly! Could we send him on a vacation? Can we work for peace while waging two wars and Gates is planning another one for tomorrow?

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Ed Garvey is a Madison lawyer, political activist and the editor of the Web site.

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