By DeWayne Wickham
How dare she? In the middle of a presidential news conference that was supposed to be about the government’s response to the BP oil spill, Helen Thomas had gall to go off script.
When President Obama called on her, the 89-year-old White House correspondent asked him about the blood of American troops that flows in Afghanistan, not the oil gushing out of a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico — the largest oil spill in American history.
Though the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan crept above the 1,000 mark just a few days earlier, Thomas was the only journalist to ask about that human carnage during Obama’s first full-blown meeting with the White House press corps in nearly a year.
“Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there?” Thomas pressed Obama. His answer, which sounded like a regurgitation of George W. Bush’s defense of the war he launched, was not nearly as important as the fact that no other reporter in the room showed even mild interest in the topic.
Coming as this did just a few days before Memorial Day — a national holiday that honors those who died in this nation’s wars — Thomas’ lone inquiry is a chilling reminder of how war has become an abstraction for too many Americans. In this age of around-the-clock television and Internet news, the fighting in Afghanistan — or for that matter, the winding down of the Iraq war — gets little coverage.
Capitol Hill isn’t overrun with anti-war protesters, and the outcome of November’s congressional elections won’t hinge on where candidates stand on the wars. And far too few of the current crop of politicians — and journalists — really understand the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make.
I do. Like a lot of members of my generation, I saw military service as a duty of citizenship, not a burden to be borne by someone else. As the war in Vietnam was heating up, I volunteered for a four-year stint in the Air Force and ended up serving a year in that war zone.
A lot of the guys who lived alongside me in Cherry Hill — a public housing complex on the southern edge of Baltimore — ended up in the military. Some volunteered; many were drafted. To the best of my knowledge, all of them served. When we came home on leave, we walked the neighborhood streets in uniform and were greeted warmly by just about everyone.
Back then, Americans seemed much more interested in war than they are today. Of course, some of this has to do with scale: Vietnam was a far bigger conflict that took a much larger human toll. And the randomness of the draft made every able-bodied young man a potential member of the armed forces. Eventually, of course, support for the Vietnam War waned and opposition to that awful conflict swelled.
Frankly, I prefer the anti-war protests of the ’60s to the indifference of today.
Democracy is like a muscle; if you don’t make good use of it, it’ll atrophy. If people genuflect to the notion that war is inevitable, or believe it is the province of a small group of men and women in Washington, then the shared sacrifice made by members of my generation — and the tenacity of Helen Thomas — will have been wasted.