Friday, June 29, 2007

TIMOTHY EGAN: Courage Without the Uniform


Every time a soldier from Oregon dies in the Iraq war, Senator Gordon Smith calls up the mother or surviving spouse, and commiserates. His son killed himself four years ago, he tells them. He knows what it’s like to lose a boy.

He has made this call 103 times. Inevitably, after the tears and the awkward pauses, they ask him this question about their lost loved one in Iraq: was it worth it?

“I wish I could tell them what they want to hear,” said Senator Smith, a Republican. “I wish I could tell them something else. I say, ‘I hope history proves me wrong, but...’ ” and then he trails off.

Senator Smith woke up one morning last December with the alarm set to news and traffic — another day, another dozen American soldiers dead. He had his Groundhog Day moment, he says. “I just went from steamed to boiled.”

Later, on the floor of the Senate, he said the words that are still echoing around the political world:

“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. This is absurd. It may even be criminal.”

It was that last word that set people on fire. Conservatives called him a traitor — to the party, the country. Liberals embraced him. Bring on impeachment!

If anything, the senator feels stronger today than he did then, though he said he would change one word in his speech. “If I could take back any word, it would be ‘criminal,’ ” he said. “I’d replace it with the word ‘insane.’ ”

At the time, Smith was one of only two Republicans in the Senate — the other being the maverick, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — to come out against the president’s war policy. This week, Richard Lugar of Indiana joined other Republican senators who have since broken ranks, making at least six who are calling for a new policy.

By the time Congress takes up the postsurge failures of the war in September, there may be a dozen or more Republicans in the Senate ready to defy the president, said Mr. Smith.

The war has started to resemble a postapocalyptic sci-fi film like “Blade Runner.” Here is a troubled superpower headed by a pair of delusional men, with a rag-tag army fighting a constant low-grade insurgency. The cause has long since been forgotten, the slogans are hollow, death lurks around every shadowy corner.

But if we are to retrieve our honor, to restore our place in the world, to make good on those lost Oregon lives, it may be because people like Gordon Smith couldn’t take it any more, that he finally said enough — bring the kids home.

Smith is a Mormon who did his mission abroad and an Eagle Scout from the eastern Oregon town of Pendleton — one of the West’s most authentic places, part Indian, part cowboy. A senator for 10 years, he is up for re-election next year.

His reading of World War I, when Europe’s finest were thrown up against machine guns day after day, and a more recent book, “Fiasco,” Tom Ricks’s devastating account of American blunders in Iraq, left him sleepless and angered.

After visiting Iraq three times, he has concluded that those in power “are more focused on revenge than reconciliation — it’s a quicksand of ancient hatreds.”

Some people question the timing of the senator’s change of heart. Smith is vulnerable in this blue state, they say, and his conversion is just a ploy to save his seat. But there is something else at work here. Smith has the seat once held by Senator Mark Hatfield, another Republican who defied his party on matters of war and peace. Hatfield was a Navy man, a veteran of Iwo Jima and one of the first Americans to see Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped. All that carnage changed his world view.

Smith was never in the armed forces. His biggest regret in life, he says, is that he never wore his country’s uniform. But unlike some chicken-hawks who did not serve — chief among them, Vice President Cheney, with his numerous draft deferments — he is not trying to make up for lost courage.

Not long ago, Hatfield called up the junior senator from Oregon and brought up the fact that Smith, once a vigorous booster, had changed his mind on the war.

“I’m proud of you for that,” he said. It meant a lot, coming from Hatfield, who is a giant in Oregon politics. But it meant even more that he was an ex-warrior.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

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