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Once Again, Striving To Preserve Freedom of Speech in Wartime

At a special and most unusual press conference at the Pentagon, General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, threw a temper tantrum. “General Myers rapped on the lectern with a clenched fist,” The New York Times reported, “and angrily mocked criticism from retired generals and others analyzing the war on television.”

Myers charged that these critics were, by their comments, undermining the war effort. “It is not helpful to have those kind of comments come out when we’ve got troops in combat,” he said. Vehemently, Myers declared that the criticisms were “harmful to our troops that are out there fighting very bravely, very courageously.”

Myers’s assault on the critics did not stop with military personnel. He moved on to the media. At this point, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who shared the platform with Myers, must have sensed that Myers’s tempestuous tirade against dissenting generals and a critical press was getting out of hand, and intervened to remind Myers that there was a Constitution that still protected the right of free speech.

The intervention was appropriate. But, if Myers’s charge that criticism by respected military authorities and the media is weakening the war effort, how long will constitutional protection of free speech hold up? During World War I, Eugene Victor Debs, perennial Socialist candidate for president, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison because of a speech he made in Canton, Ohio, opposing the war. When the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the liberal Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion upholding Debs’s guilt on the grounds that free speech does not allow anyone to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

In New York State, six Socialists who were elected to the State Assembly from New York City were unceremoniously ejected from the assembly because they were opposed to the war. During World War II, Japanese on the West Coast were interned because they were Japanese, not for their actions.

Underlying this most unusual quarrel among the military brass is a clear record of misjudgment by current policy-makers. Early on, Rumsfeld predicted that the war would probably take five or six days or, at worst, five or six weeks. Iraq would be a piece of cake. He was clearly wrong. When the war started, the strategy was “shock and awe.” Heavy bombardment was supposed to “shock” Saddam Hussein’s troops and ignite an uprising of the oppressed people of Iraq. We may have “shocked” them, but they were not overawed. They rallied in resisting what they see as a return of British imperialism in the form of the U.S.-British coalition. As a consequence, volunteers from other Islamic nations are pouring into Iraq to join the jihad against the foreign invaders.

Meanwhile, Myers and Rumsfeld wish us to believe that everything is going according to plan, that when President Bush asked Myers at an earlier time how long he thought the war would last, Rumsfeld grabbed Myers by the arm and said, “You don’t want to answer that question, Dick.” And the vice president didn’t,

The latest news is that our supply lines are being stretched, as it was for others from Napoleon to Hitler to Uncle Sam in Vietnam and, as a result, many of our troops are reduced to eating only two meals a day.

Shall patriotic, professional military personnel who want the American people to know the truth be told to “shut up” — or else? In our great crusade to impose democracy everywhere, shall we lose it in our own beloved land?

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