I know, I know: I shouldn't bother reading Richard Cohen, and mostly I don't. Today's column, however, is pretty extraordinary, though I'm not sure Cohen realizes its implications.
Most of the column is devoted to an explanation of how Cohen initially supported the war in Vietnam, but then changed his mind once it was his life on the line:
"It was only later, when I myself was in the Army, that I deemed the war not worth killing or dying for. By then I -- the second "I" -- no longer felt it was winnable, and I did not want to lose my life so that somehow defeat could be managed more elegantly."
One might have thought that after being wrong the first time -- and not just wrong, but wrong in part because he didn't think about Vietnam seriously enough until his own life was at stake -- Cohen would have thought long and hard about why he was wrong, and how to avoid being too willing to sacrifice other people's lives for a goal he hadn't really thought through. For all I know, he did try to do this, but by his own account he didn't succeed. At first he had "no moral qualms" about the war in Iraq; now he has changed his mind:
"As with Vietnam, we are fighting now merely not to lose -- to avoid a full-fledged civil war (it's coming anyway) or to keep the country together, something like that. But not for victory. Not for democracy. All this talk of the Iraqis doing more on their own behalf is Vietnamization in the desert rather than the jungle. What remains the same is asking soldiers to die for a reason that the politicians in Washington can no longer explain. This, above all, is how Iraq is like Vietnam: older men asking younger men to die while they try to figure something out."
Everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone makes mistakes as serious as this in the very field in which they have set themselves up as an expert. And not everyone makes essentially the same mistake twice -- failing to think hard enough about why one is advocating a war that will cost tens of thousands of people their lives. That Cohen is capable of making this mistake, failing to learn from it, and then making it again, shows that while he may have many talents, he doesn't have the knowledge and the judgment needed to responsibly hold the position he holds. The decent thing to do would be to resign.
Moreover, his article contains one of those sentences that, all by itself, shows that the person who wrote it should never be taken seriously again, at least about policy -- a sentence that should take its place in the Pundit Hall of Shame alongside Jonah Goldberg's "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business", or Tom Friedman's "We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind". Here it is, in all its glory:
"In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic."
Richard Cohen: resign. Resign right now. You may, for all I know, have a talent for laying pipe or landscaping that might yet allow you to make a contribution to the world. Admittedly, no amount of carefully laid pipe or expertly transplanted salvias could come close to compensating for your part in enabling this administration and its ill-considered wars, but frankly, you're in no position to be picky. Moreover, I would think that someone who had assumed a public position as a Wise Person Worth Listening To without, apparently, any sense of the responsibilities that that entails might benefit from the attempt to make tiny, concrete, unpublicized improvements to the world, of the sort monks strove for when they tried to perform the most mundane and inglorious daily tasks in such a way that they could be offered up to God without shame. Laying pipe very carefully and very well would do, as would trying very hard to keep the root balls of shrubs intact during transplantation. Even if you don't have any such talent, taking up a new career flipping burgers at McDonalds would at least minimize the damage you can inflict on the world, while allowing you ample time to reflect on those personal failings that allowed you to think of war as therapy, and to try to think of some small and unknown contribution that you might yet make to the world.
But don't take my word for it. Go visit the families of soldiers who have fallen in the interests of what you considered "therapeutic", or the families of any of the of thousands of people who have been kidnapped off the streets of Iraq for no reason, tortured with electric drills, and then found dead behind some abandoned building or floating in the Tigris. Ask them whether they think that the war in Iraq has been "therapeutic". Then ask yourself whether you shouldn't just turn in your license to practice national psychotherapy, and go off and lay pipe instead.