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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/15/10

Of Mice And Men

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Not only does it not happen anymore, but the very ethos of personal sacrifice is itself sadly tattered and shattered in our time. Members of the American military sometimes take remarkable risks and make supreme sacrifices, but I don't think they often do it in the name of abstract principles. In fact I think they the brass especially far too often trample such principles in pursuit of other goals. As David Halberstam noted in his histories of the Korean and Vietnam wars, men who could be quite brave in battle often became bureaucratic cowards of frightening proportions, protecting their careers as they later rose up the ranks of the Pentagon establishment. And this, of course, at the immense cost of grief and even lives for those unlucky enough to have served under them.

Bobby Kennedy made essentially the same point, more broadly: "Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital, quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change."

The heroes willing to make sacrifices of this sort come from another era. Daniel Ellsberg risked all to share with us the military's own secret truth about Vietnam. Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus gave up their cabinet positions rather than protect the crimes of Richard Nixon by firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Cyrus Vance resigned on principle as Carter's Secretary of State. In the Clinton era, two lower ranking officials quit in protest of his draconian welfare legislation.

Today, a few Bush administration officials have pointed to the crimes of that regime, but always too meekly and always too late to matter much. I admire Richard Clarke and his patriotic candor. He tried to alert the country to the nature of the president in time to prevent a second term, but not in time to avert the illegal and murderous invasion of Iraq, based on lies to which Clarke was privy. And Colin Powell, whose reputation was always wildly inflated, anyhow, allowed his stature and legacy to be reduced dramatically rather than refusing to become a tool of the Bush/Cheney train wreck. He was probably the only American who could have single-handedly stopped the march to war in 2003 if he had but spoken up. Alas, he did not, and perhaps a million people are dead now as a consequence.

These are, as Bobby Kennedy notes, hard things to do. But it always struck me that unless one is a sociopath the opposite would so much harder. I can't begin to imagine how I'd face myself in the mirror for the rest of my life if had traded an ocean of blood for... what? A career advancement? Can it really be that such a sentiment is rare in twenty-first century America?

Perhaps. It would seem to be the way of our time. But maybe the above caveat explains it all to well. Maybe it's just that far too many of the men and women drawn to "public service' today are in fact deeply sociopathic. I don't think that's such a stretch. We live in an era that prizes celebrity and personal enrichment like never before. Those who embrace the worship of self today are rewarded with the valued goodies of our society, and are, I think, all too often drawn to political office, and all too often for the wrong reasons.

By no means is this limited to its worst practitioners on the right. One thinks of the astonishing narcissism of John Edwards, which worse yet he masked behind a supposed concern for the poor as the rationale for his presidential bid. Or the moral stench of Bill Clinton flying to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to establish his tough-on-crime bona fides by supervising the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally deficient that he asked to save the desert from his last meal to eat at a later date.

Measured against the Bushes and Cheneys and Powells and Clintons of our time, Justice John Paul Stevens seems just the anachronism he truly is. In the strongly-worded dissents he filed in cases such as Bush v. Gore or Citizens United, one sensed the agony of a real patriot, powerless to hold the line against the destruction of principles and country that he loves, but unwilling to stand by and watch in silence.

Maybe there are other people like that today, but I don't see them. In any case, they don't go by the name of Obama or Biden or Pelosi or Reid, that's for sure. Quite the opposite is the case nowadays. The reckless and destructive rhetoric of the Palins and Becks and Limbaughs of our time has all the political wind of this moment in its sails. Remarkably, this is so even after a solid decade (if not three) in which the corrosive effect of the politics they champion has been on full display for all to see.

But we don't, by and large. See, that is. And that is true, in part, because there are so few John Paul Stevens out there manning the ramparts of such crucial but fragile basic constructs as decency, integrity and honesty. These qualities are entirely requisite to the practices of liberty, democracy and equality, themselves the product of thousands of years of painful development in history.

No, there are sadly so few John Paul Stevens out there.

And now there will be one less.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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