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Although I am not a former POW, a battle-scarred veteran, or an active duty soldier laying my life on the line for my country, I am a human being who has experienced love (of life, of freedom, of family) and loss. As a human being, I feel devastated by the loss of life, limb and peace of mind suffered by all soldiers and civilians in war. Even when war is unavoidable, the losses suffered by individuals, families, communities, and nations are immeasurable, catastrophic. And as a human being, I feel authorized if not duty-bound to speak on the subject of war.
It is with this understanding that last week I viewed a photograph, taken by Tom Pennington for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Associated Press, of seriously wounded American soldiers marching toward a new, privately funded rehabilitation center in San Antonio. In the foreground and center of the photograph, perched high up in his motorized wheel chair, sits a man, a soldier, a double amputee whose face has apparently been badly burned. He is not identified by name. I wonder what he is thinking and feeling at the moment the photo is snapped. Marching behind him, in a long line moving down a sidewalk, are eight or nine other wounded soldiers, mostly amputees, all but one in wheel chairs.
The accompanying story tells about the opening of the rehab center, christened the Center for the Intrepid, which is equipped with a rock-climbing wall, a wave pool and a virtual reality computer system. No expense has been spared. Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton were on hand to honor the veterans for whom the center was built.
Only a brief quotation from John McCain’s speech appears in the story. McCain is quoted as saying, “We can only offer you our humility. You are the best Americans.”
As a student of rhetoric, I know very well that McCain’s words in this context are powerfully charged with ethos, which is formed by the character or authority of the speaker (or writer), and can make or break a speech. If a person brings enough ethos to bear on the matter, the logic of his or her words, the logos, may not matter to the audience much at all. If the ethos fails, so most likely will the speech. It is very often not what is said so much as who does the saying.
Few are as well-suited to speak to wounded soldiers at the opening of a rehab center than former POW and current Senator and presidential hopeful John McCain. Most Americans, including me, honor his service and sacrifice; many undoubtedly, and with good reason, revere the man. Yet we are still obliged to attend to the underlying logic or illogic of words, no matter how much authority we might grant their speaker. We are not, as McCain himself would surely agree, a nation of blind followers or of yes men and women. Our soldiers do not risk life, limb, and peace of mind to protect a country where one cannot question our leaders’ words and the reasoning behind them, even when those words are spoken in ceremonial contexts super-charged with emotions born of war and its ravages.
McCain’s words disturb me. Why, after all, haven’t these wounded soldiers been treated like “best Americans” long before becoming victims of war? Why, prior to their enlistment, were we not treating all these intrepid Americans, many of whom choose military service for economic reasons, like “best Americans”? As McCain puts it, all we can give them now is humility, which amounts to nothing-far too little, way too late. So when might we have given them something substantial? If we regard them as our best Americans, the cream of the Uncle Sam’s crop, why weren’t we giving them much more, much earlier in their lives?
We might have begun, for example, by infusing poor communities throughout the land with the same massive levels of funding-for housing, education, health care, social services, and infrastructure-we marshal for war. We might have given all prospective soldiers early, equal access to the best public and private schools in the country. We might have transformed the minimum wage into a living wage to better equip their care-givers to meet their needs, and to better meet their own needs as teenagers and young adults. We might have reduced the often debilitating financial burden of illness on individuals and families by legislating universal heath care. We might have radically increased federal funding for higher education, multiplying the ways and means available to all Americans willing and able attend college, where real economic opportunity begins.
We might, in other words, have provided the soldiers to whom McCain now offers our humility just a small taste of the opportunities enjoyed by “average Americans.” For these average Americans, the neo-conservatives who conceived the Iraq war among them, military service is just one choice among many, and not usually (only occasionally) high on the list of priorities. Humility seems to me a very small price for average Americans, such as Dick Cheney and George Bush, to pay for their abundant privileges and able-bodied freedoms.
You might think, at the very least, we would have given our best Americans the truth about the war so they could have decided, with all the information available to those average Americans designing the war, whether benefits to them, their families, and the nation outweighed the costs. You might even think we’d have continued to insist on a draft, all these years, so that average Americans could at least be given equal opportunity to raise their status and become more like the best Americans in McCain’s audience.
But we know just how fast Representative Charlie Rangel’s and Senator Ernest F. Hollings’ 2003 bills to reinstitute the draft fell off the House and Senate floors, despite strong support from many of their colleagues, including Republican Senator Chuck Hagel. As Hagel then explained to the Washington Post, “My colleagues are running away from this as fast as they can . . . [But] there isn’t a one of them who doesn’t understand what I’m doing.” Not one but John McCain, who in fall 2006 told Chris Mathews, “I don’t think we need to think of the draft again because I don’t think it makes sense in a whole variety of ways.”
As a human being, I feel deeply for the soldiers pictured by Tom Pennington marching toward the Center of the Intrepid in San Antonio. I understand that all words, including John McCain’s and mine, must fail.
Certainly, we can do no less than offer humility, but we might all rightly wonder why it takes such monumental sacrifice for the best Americans among us to be accorded the recognition and respect they have deserved their whole lives.
TOM KERR teaches Writing and Rhetoric at Ithaca College. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.