As if it were needed, the barbaric killings of two American soldiers in Iraq, who were captured last Friday and found, apparently beheaded, is another reminder of who we are fighting and why we cannot leave, though by now most of us wish we could. Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Oregon, were butchered by jihadist followers of the unlamented Abu Musab Zarqawi, their bodies left behind like common dogs. Their killers gloated on websites: "We give the good news ... to the Islamic nation that we have carried God's verdict by slaughtering the two captured crusaders."
Meanwhile in Washington, the Democrats are determined to leave Iraq and are preparing a resolution to do so. It's an understandable impulse. Iraq is hard and bloody, requiring excesses of courage far beyond the children's courage of the Democrats: up for it if it's easy, the hell with it if it's not. Men like Menchaca and Tucker had to call on excess courage every day to keep themselves together. It's courage that few civilian Americans know anything about, thanks to our all volunteer military that has effectively created a new class structure in our country: the warrior class, the working class, and the coffee/Internet cafe class (wireless access, please).
The Democrats are not interested in abstract principles like national honor and have never been willing to absorb the lessons of appeasement taught in the years prior to World War II and during various stages of the Cold War. Their last presidential candidate, John Kerry, advocated recently that we pull out of Iraq by the end of 2006. Then he said that maybe we could pull out by summer 2007. It's anyone's guess whether the butchery of two more of our soldiers and the desecration of their bodies will move his capitulation schedule forward or back.
Then you have the Republicans, led by our silent President. Though they have gotten plenty things wrong, including fighting the war with too few troops, they have gotten one big thing right: leaving too soon means defeat. For this, if not for other things, the President deserves credit. Resisting the chorus of doomsayers -- and the very much alive Vietnam syndrome -- over the last three years has required extraordinary political will.
Yet even with that hardiness, Bush makes conservatives miss Ronald Reagan much more often than he reminds them of him. The killing of Menchaca and Tucker is a case in point. The President was at a U.S.-E.U. meeting in Vienna and did not deign to comment on the kidnapping and butchering of the two soldiers, both rare events in this conflict that are chock-full of propaganda value for the enemy, especially when their boasts are left unanswered. It is impossible to imagine Reagan falling silent at such a time. On the contrary, it is easy to imagine what Reagan might say, and easier still to conjure the tone and manner in which he would say it.
No one, at this late date, expects President Bush to duplicate Reagan's oratory, but his silence so far is another example of his failure to recognize important symbolic moments until after they have passed. Presidents do a lot of things through back channel means that we never know about, but they also have a public role, especially in a time of war. On the whole, over nearly six years, Bush has been dreadful at this important part of the job.
A few weeks back, he was shamefully mealy-mouthed about the allegations against the Marines in Haditha. All he could manage was a pledge to punish the guilty, and he said nothing in support of the Marine Corps in general, which should have been the thrust of his comments. Instead, he seemed more concerned with demonstrating to the enemy, and the media, what a sensitive war he is running.
All of this makes me wonder whether we have enough outrage -- at least in Washington -- to prevail in this struggle. The enemy has plenty, of course, and not much else. We have rationalism and pluralism and a whole lot of other things that make us proud, and they're part of what we're fighting for, and fighting with. But wars aren't won on rationalism alone, though they can surely be lost that way.
Paul Beston is a writer in New York.
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