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We Were Soldiers

Imagine: A Vietnam war film in which the Americans are fine, intelligent, brave and noble warriors straight out of the Hollywood World War II tradition.

By 2.28.02

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With Enron looming and Monica Lewinsky behind us Iran-contra seems like it was 50 years ago, not 15. But in case you haven't heard, there's a familiar face that has taken a job at the Pentagon. Admiral John Poindexter, former national security adviser in the Reagan administration, is now heading up the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office. According to the AP, the recently created Information Awareness Office "that will focus on new kinds of military threats, including terrorist organizations."

Yes, this is the same John Poindexter who bore the brunt of the accusations in the Iran-contra scandal, amid much speculation he was taking the fall for those above him. The fact that Admiral Poindexter is returning to public life has prompted a good deal of sniping inside the Beltway, first in the New Republic and in Slate, or as everyone likes to call it, the "New Republic Lite." This has also been occasioned by the grand dame of the White House Press Corps, Helen Thomas harassing Ari Fleischer about Poindexter's appointment. The "Slate" article was even petty enough to dredge up Poindexter's role as national security adviser in creating a disinformation campaign besmirching the good name of -- gasp-- Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

But before I defend Admiral Poindexter any further I had better come clean. My Father and John Poindexter have been close friends for almost 50 years. They were roommates for four years at the Naval Academy. Another roommate, who also remains close, moved back to Annapolis after a career as a submariner, and started a company that -- I'm not making this up -- contracts out with the government to shred sensitive documents. He's retired now, but my father still runs a company out in Oregon that he co-founded with a cousin of Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame. All three graduated in 1958, the same year as Sen. John McCain (Poindexter was first in his class, McCain near the bottom), and certainly McCain is no stranger to political scandal either.

All of this, of course, is purely coincidental. Or is it that it is simply impossible to lead a life anymore both public (Poindexter, McCain) or private (my father) without being touched by political scandal.

So forgive me if I find it easy to forgive Poindexter for his alleged transgressions. It's not because I'm close to him (despite my father's relationship with him, I grew up on a different coast and have met the man exactly three times). I do find it hard to accept when public officials engage in coverups, but I am willing to parse the difference those who do this out of principle and those who don't. Poindexter is said to have been involved in a scheme to surreptitiously trade arms to a hostile foreign government in the hopes of freeing American hostages and saving lives. Bill Clinton is said to have surreptitiously sold arms to a hostile foreign government in exchange for campaign contributions. Poindexter was vilified, and Bill Clinton got re-elected President of the United States. To the extent that Iran-contra was a Faustian bargain, many of the victims and hostages of terrorists in the Middle East probably feel differently about it than the Washington press corps.

And to his credit, the press corps is something that Poindexter has consciously avoided all these years. Unlike just about everyone else involved in a major political scandal in the last 40 years, Poindexter has not penned a salacious tell-all, become a talking head or traded on his Iran-contra notoriety in anyway -- unlike many of his peers. I know I would have snapped long ago, especially when I had suffered the indignity of becoming a character in a Movie-of-the-Week. Especially a movie that no less a journalistic icon than Ben Bradlee's son was paid handsomely for the rights to.

So I suspect the Admiral cares very little about what the press thinks of him, and rightly so. If Poindexter is coming out of the woodwork, it is for one reason and one reason only: he thinks he can serve his country. And now that we are at war, we need him. All of this sniping completely ignores the matter of Poindexter's qualifications for the job. The Information Awareness Office was created recently by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The IAO should largely be focused on intelligence gathering and military technology issues. It's not an overtly political office, despite what its name implies, and Poindexter seems tailor-made for the position. He is by all accounts, a genius. He has a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from Cal-Tech, an unimpeachable military record, and has long been one of the most sought after defense and intelligence consultants in the country. To say nothing of the remarkable fact that Poindexter has actual hands-on experience in dealing with terrorist organizations in the Middle East. No one, and I mean no one, would dispute his expertise in any of these areas. Now forgive me if I want my high level Pentagon officials to spend more time reading "Jane's" than the "New Republic," which in Washington is one charge that Poindexter can gladly plead Mea Culpa to.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.