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Ducking the Challenge


MEMORANDUM FOR: Congressman David Obey
FROM: A Former Admirer
SUBJECT: Ducking the Challenge

“We can sit, frozen in our own indifference, as President Roosevelt once said…” That’s what you said yesterday in connection with saving teachers’ jobs. Sadly, it also applies—in spades—to saving lives in an unnecessary war.

It is amazing how you’ve changed, Dave, in the 25 years since you told then-Secretary George Shultz from your subcommittee chairman seat, “I did not take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States until I got tired.” (As you’ll recall, Shultz had made the mistake of saying, in effect, screw the law; the American people are tired of hearing about Iran-Contra.)

Now we are supposed to feel sorry for you because you say you are too “bone tired” to do your duty to defend the Constitution as it continues to be undermined by an illegal and futile war in Afghanistan in which over 1,000 American soldiers have already died.

Have you made your colleagues aware of the unconscionable fact that little thought has been given to the need to appropriate hundreds of billions more to care for those wounded in battle? Even now, most of our veterans are already being treated shabbily. You know that.

You recently told a TV interviewer you thought the war in Afghanistan was a “fool’s errand.” But you then added quickly that, if we are to pursue this errand, it must be fully funded. You are smart enough to know there is no logic in that.

Two important things happened yesterday:

1-You made it clear that your “chairman’s mark” on the supplemental that provides for $33 billion more for the war will be augmented by the lipstick of $23 billion for teachers’ jobs in what you plan to send forward from Appropriations.

2-You refused to meet with former Iraq War veteran Josh Stieber to hear how the Pentagon’s “rules of engagement” have brutalized our own soldiers—not to mention countless Iraqis and Afghans. Stieber’s two-week attempt to get a few minutes of your time was given the cold shoulder—even though he spent from 8:15 AM to 6:30 PM yesterday in the Rayburn building.

You owe the Josh Stiebers of our armed forces big time. We all do. You must not have taken the time to view “Collateral Murder,” the Army gun-barrel video showing American troops killing Iraqi civilians in a turkey-shoot on July 12, 2007 during the “surge” in Baghdad. In blowing off Josh Stieber (who was in that unit), you also blew off the 100,000 of his former buddies already in, or headed to, Afghanistan. Thousands of those will have their lives destroyed, in one way or another, with the help of $33 billion more for what you, in a candid moment, called a “fool’s errand.”

A sad irony here is that when you came to Congress, you helped end the Vietnam War by cutting off funding. Another sad reality is this: I know that you know that Afghanistan is another Vietnam—only more feckless. Sadder still is the fact that you are unwilling to tell your colleague about Joe McCarthy and scare tactics—whether they are about communists or terrorists. And it is both profoundly sad, and highly ironic, that Joe McCarthy’s demagoguery was what prompted you to get involved in politics.

Not all that hard to do, I suppose—I mean, to give President Obama the wherewithal to fund the war rather than wind it down. After all, your sons will not have to go; nor will any of your neighbors in the 22207 zip-code area of Arlington. Neither will the sons of your colleagues in Congress. Our “professional army” is a poverty draft, and you know it. “Preferential option for the poor” be damned.

In my mind’s eye I can see a long line of people, once proud of you, now wondering what has happened. I don’t mean only La Follette, who of course didn’t know you, but after whom you have styled yourself. No, I mean people who did know you and once admired you: people like Sister Margaret, Sister Tecla, John Francis Dearden, Tom Gumbleton. And people like me.

When “heartland progressives,” as you call yourself on the cover of your book, get “bone-tired,” that is precisely the time when they should stick to their principles and go out fighting. What, in God’s name, have you got to lose?

Call me an “idiot liberal,” if you will. I’ll refrain from name-calling—although quite a few come to mind. I just want to register my profound disappointment at, and inability to understand, the Faustian bargain you appear to have struck, as well as my grief over the lives that will be lost and damaged as a result.

Yours truly,


Arlington, Virginia
May 27, 2010




Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: A version of this article first appeared on  

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