What should we risk to explore space, defend peace?
Outside of my family, I have maybe two or three heroes. One is a friend named Ray, who spent more than seven years in a Vietnamese prison until his release 30 years ago this month. The other is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to ever set foot on the moon.
I met Ray several years after his release. He had just ended his illustrious Navy career and was living down the road in Squaw Valley. He let me into his home and shared his amazing stories of heroism, faith and patriotism. We became good friends, eventually traveling back to Vietnam together a few years ago.
I met Buzz Aldrin maybe two years ago at a reception. He talked of space and how we should never stop looking beyond the stars. Draped around his neck was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of this nation’s highest honors.
I thought of Ray and Buzz this weekend as I watched the news. Over coffee Saturday morning, I watched the space shuttle explode above Texas, instantly killing the seven astronauts on board. The television talking heads were already questioning the value of America’s manned space mission, wondering if it was worth the human sacrifice.
Sandwiched between those network sound bites, they asked the same thing about America’s inevitable conflict with Iraq. Will it be worth the human sacrifice that will surely result from that impending attack?
On the first count, the answer must be a resounding yes. To a person, the seven astronauts who perished Saturday would say, “Yes. Manned space exploration must continue.”
Why? As Aldrin said, “Because we can. Because it’s up there and we’re down here.”
On the issue of Iraq, there has been general agreement that Saddam Hussein is a monster. A dictator. A murderer. A madman. He has shown that he is capable of using poison gas on innocent people; women and children among them. Take a look at the 1988 photos from the village of Halabja, where Saddam killed 5,000 Kurds with poison gas.
It is also clear that Saddam would love to have his very own nuclear bomb. Dr. Khidir Hamza, who defected to the U.S. from Iraq in 1994 after working as a physicist in charge of Saddam’s nuclear weapons program, warns that Iraq will have a “Hiroshima-size” nuclear bomb within the next 24 months if we leave him alone.
So let’s say we do nothing, as has been suggested by the thousands who march in the streets today righteously – nothing is more righteous than peace and the ability to demand it without being jailed or executed – chanting for peace. Let’s say we bring all of our troops home right now from the Middle East, Korea, and from all other parts of the world where evildoers stir their toxic mix.
We’ll send our soldiers home to their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters.
And we’ll all sit around the campfire singing “We are the World” and we’ll live happily ever after, just as they do in fairy tales.
We’ll pretend that there is no evil in this world and therefore no need for soldiers to protect us from the imaginary ghosts and goblins.
Unfortunately, we’d be fooling ourselves. Worse, we’d be letting down those who are at this very minute under the spell of those very real masters of evil spread throughout our world today.
Do we really believe the people of Iraq love Saddam Hussein? Do we think they are grateful for his years of oppressive leadership, for his death squads, for his thirst for war, or appetite for weapons of mass destruction while they hunger for food, medicine and peace?
Why don’t they rise up? Because they are more terrified of Saddam than they are of the Americans who will certainly dispatch them in short order unless Saddam leaves now. The fate of the Iraqi people has always been in Saddam’s hands. Always.
Why are we preparing to send soldiers into Iraq? Because we can. Because we are here and Saddam is there. Because if we don’t, who will?
France? Not based on history. The French would be speaking German today if it weren’t for the United States.
Germany? They seem to have forgotten Hitler and for some reason can’t see the resemblance between Hitler, Saddam or Osama.
Like it or not, we are a world superpower, and with that status comes an obligation to help police this world. Peace always has a price.
We meet that obligation with our young men and women in uniform, whom we send to do our dirty work and pay them a pittance to do so. We’ve seen some of Nevada County’s own say their goodbyes in recent weeks as they set course for various trouble spots abroad.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Grass Valley pediatrician Dr. Michael Curtis as he left for Naval Reserve active duty in Kuwait last week. “If we can avoid war by having a strong presence, then whatever the cost, it’s worth it.”
“I believe Saddam has them (biological weapons), and I believe he will use them,” said Nevada City resident Jon Christensen, a long-time registered nurse at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, on his way last week to serve with the Army as a member of a contingent of doctors and nurses tending to troops somewhere in harm’s way. He was called to active duty because he has training in biological/chemical agents that may be used against U.S. forces.
The one thing that sustained my friend Ray as he sat chained in his 7-foot-by-7-foot Hanoi cell for seven years was his faith that America would not forget him.
We need to keep that in mind as our soldiers march toward uncertainty. Let them know we appreciate them, and that no matter what, we will not forget their efforts or their sacrifices. That we will be here to welcome them with open arms when they return. We failed to do that during the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for that.
We pursue space for the same reasons we pursue evil; because it’s there and we’re here.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears every Tuesday.
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