Tom West: Today's question: Is the U.S. at war or not?

Thirty-three years ago, as I recall, President Nixon withdrew American troops from Cambodia where they had gone to destroy the sanctuaries of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.

Thirty-three years ago, as I recall, President Nixon withdrew American troops from Cambodia where they had gone to destroy the sanctuaries of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.

When it was revealed that American forces were in Cambodia, a new wave of anti-war protests swept across the United States, as it appeared that Nixon's "secret plan" for ending the Vietnam War involved widening it.

As a result, Nixon pulled back the troops, telling the world that our troops were out of Cambodia.

And most of them were.

However, not all. My memory is a little hazy of those long ago days, but seared in my mind is seeing classified messages from a Navy Seal detachment that had gone back into Cambodia to repair a radio transmitter.


I know it was 1971 because my ship spent two deployments off of Vietnam. During the second, which began in mid-1971 and ended in 1972 after my discharge, I had been transferred to the Communications Department. There, I stood watch with the radiomen and kept track of the message traffic. That's the only way I could have seen those bulletins from the Seal detachment. I was struck by the idea that Nixon was untruthful when he declared our troops were no longer in Cambodia.

So it was that Sen. John Kerry has been brought to task by the Republicans because he said repeatedly that he had been in Cambodia in December 1968, and that the president had lied about it. I guess Kerry's memory is even worse than mine, because no U.S. troops were in Cambodia in 1968, and nobody ever accused then President Lyndon Johnson of lying about it. Nixon was always the culprit, and the year was 1971, long after Kerry was safely home and calling all of his comrades-in-arms war criminals.

Personally, I don't care about any of that. If Kerry lied 18 years ago about something that happened 36 years ago, I won't hold it against him, anymore than George W. Bush's lackluster military career should be held against him.

That's because we have a new threat in front of us -- at least some of us think so. When Americans go to the polls in a little more than 10 weeks, I think almost all of them will be casting a vote on the future, not the long ago past. And the primary issue before us boils down to: Are we at war or not?

Yes, our troops are risking their lives to free Iraq from tyranny. However, since 9/11, the only terrorist attacks on the American people were by the anthrax mailer and a lone gunman at LAX on July 4, 2002. Life is continuing on as before. We're still driving gas guzzlers 75 mph. We aren't having blood drives for our troops. The care packages for the troops are tailing off.

Except for the disruption caused by calling up every reservist possible, the president hasn't asked the general population to make many sacrifices.

It's easy to be lulled into believing that the United States is at peace, and the news from Iraq is just an unpleasant irritation.

Periodically, however, there are jolts. A few weeks ago, I began reading the 9/11 Commission Report. On the first page of the second chapter, the commission notes that this war was well under way by 9/11. In fact, in February 1998, in an Arabic newspaper published in London, Osama bin Laden and four others called for the murder of any American, anywhere on Earth.


That's right. You. Me. The whole 280 million lot of us.

Normally, one would consider such statements to be the ravings of a lunatic. But then, he managed to kill 3,000 of us.

Thus, Bush went after him, destroying his sanctuary in Afghanistan and throwing al Qaeda into disarray. Then he went into Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, and that's when half of us turned against Bush.

One can argue, as many have, that Bush prosecuted the war incorrectly, that he never should have gone into Iraq. However, the suspicion remains that most of those people who are saying that simply don't want to believe that the United States is at war.

If only we pull out of Iraq, then everything will be fine. After all, once we pulled out of Vietnam, everything was fine again -- kind of -- if one conveniently forgets the 2 million people killed by the Khmer Rouge in the killing fields of Cambodia, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that first manifested itself with the deposing of the Shah of Iran and the kidnapping of our diplomats in 1979 and the first Gulf War in 1991.

And so, it isn't what John Kerry says about what happened 36 years ago that bothers me. What has me concerned is what he is saying he will do if elected. First, a la Nixon, he said he had a secret plan to end the war, but then he said that he would reduce our troop strength in Iraq within six months of election.

As much as we all want our troops to come home, that was particularly unwise. It gives hope to the enemy that the Americans will cut and run once again if they can just hold on until Kerry is elected. Then the Iranians, who are doing what they can to keep the Iraq War going, or al Qaeda can spread their brand of Islamic fundamentalism across the Middle East. The people who want every one of us dead will have won a major battle in a war half of us still don't believe has to be fought. The Iraq War may have initially been about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but it continues today because the fundamental extremists across the Middle East are rallying to the insurgents.

We all know that if Bush is re-elected, he will stay the course. If we are a nation at war, staying the course makes sense.


But if we are a nation at peace, unthreatened by the forces of Islamic fundamentalism, then an argument against continued military intervention gains some credibility. Kerry seems to be making hints in that direction.

That seems like the riskier path at this point. But then, I think there is a war going on, the one that Osama bin Laden declared in 1998.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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