Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2004 / 20 Teves, 5764

Michael Graham

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A man with a mission | OK, Mr. President, I'm trying to hang in with you here, but you're making it tough.

Afghanistan? Got it. I know why we had to go into Afghanistan. Iraq? I'm on board. War on terror, Saddam was a terrorist, we gotta go to Iraq. OK. Saudi Arabia? Count me in. (Oops, I'm not supposed to know about that one. Sorry.)

But Mars? You want us to spend 500 billion dollars to send people to Mars…and none of those people are Michael Moore?

I fail to see the benefit.

Look, I like the idea of space travel as much as the next guy. I was a total sci-fi geek growing up, reading Heinlein and dreaming of commanding the USS Enterprise or sneaking into the Jupiter II with Penny while everyone else was chasing Dr. Smith and the robot.

But what in this world — or any other nearby celestial body — are you thinking when you propose blowing an entire year's worth of budget deficits on a difficult, dangerous and utterly pointless trip to Mars?

The buzz out of Washington is that this is a Karl Rove Special. Your Mars proposal is supposed to provide a bold vision for your second term and present you as (according to an AP account) an "inspirational leader." The announcement is timed to allow you to speak of man's great journey into the unknown at the same moment Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt are bickering about ethanol subsidies in Iowa.

A Mars mission shows that, while your dad never got "the vision thing," you do. OK, fine.

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But Mr. President, if you really believe America needs a great mission with great purpose to be a great nation; if you want to see brave Americans in expensive, high-tech gear embark on a risky, world-changing mission on hostile and alien terrain, then forget Mars.

Go back to Iraq.

We don't need Neil Armstrong or Sally Ride. We've got Col. James Hickey and Capt. Kimberly Hampton and 300,000 more American heroes leaving their bootprints in the dust of distant soil. And while they don't have to contend with cosmic radiation or an atmosphere that is 95% carbon dioxide while exploring the Gusev Crater, they face — and sometimes fall — to roadside bombs and sniper bullets while patrolling in the poisonous atmosphere of hatred and resentment of the Sunni Triangle.

In fact, compared to the grand and sweeping goal of transforming the Middle East and rescuing the free world from Islamo-fascist extremism, flying a space bus full of astronauts to the Red Planet is small potatoes. Be honest, Mr. President, which problem would you rather see on your final exam: finding a propulsion system that can bring men to Mars, or a political system that can bring peace to the West Bank?

Draining the fever swamp of irrationality and violence that is the modern Arab world is the greatest mission America has embarked upon since the defeat of global communism, perhaps even since the defeat of fascism. It is costing us dearly in blood and treasure, but I believe that it will one day bring us great glory. A generation from now, when the story of the triumph of liberty is told, I believe our heroes treading the streets of Baghdad and Kabul will be remembered for establishing the new frontier of freedom.

And if the "moderate Republican" in you really cries out for a massive increase in government spending, how about splurging on these soldiers — on replacements for the 7,000 soldiers kept in the Mideast beyond their enlistment by "stop loss" orders, or full health benefits for reservists being asked to give full-time service? It won't cost as much as going to Mars, but I guarantee it will ring up the big-time bling-bling.

Just ask Don Rumsfeld.

I hate to say it, Mr. President, but telling America we need to spend billions to create showbiz heroes in space is an insult to the heroes doing the hard work for us on the ground. If I were a soldier stuck in the heat of the Persian Gulf waiting for my replacement to arrive, it would be hard not to feel resentful about the wealth and attention you're ready to shower on some inspiring but empty dream.

As a soldier, I'd be thinking about my dreams: of leaving Iraq a better place than I found it, of pushing the Islamic world towards renunciation of violence, of helping Muslim believers in peace and freedom rise and lead, of getting back home to my family, a family that will be safer thanks to my efforts.

Instead of a speech about imagined heroes of some far-off (and cost-prohibitive) future, how about some soaring rhetoric about what freedom, reason and sacrifice can put within the reach of every person on Earth today? Instead of pointing to a distant light in the sky, why not point to the East, to those flashpoints like Afghanistan and Iraq where our values of pluralism and liberty are facing down the forces of intolerance and oppression?

Mr. President, you've got your mission. America has its great calling. Our heroes are once again changing the world.

And while they may not be space suits, Mr. President, the uniforms are still really, really cool.

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JWR contributor Michael Graham is a talk show host and author of the highly acclaimed "Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War." To comment, please click here.


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© 2003, Michael Graham