"Don't let my son die in vain."
Those words are often spoken to the president by kin of fallen soldiers as the commander in chief attempts to assuage their grief, according to Robert Draper's insider account of the Bush administration, "Dead Certain."
For me, the difficulty in addressing this plea from grieving family members encompasses the Iraq conundrum. It's not so much whether to trust Gen. David Petraeus, or determining a favorite among the competing military talking heads on the cable shows, or deciding whether meeting nine of 18 designated benchmarks means we met half the goals, or missed 50 percent.
No, the tough call here is what we owe the more than 3,700 men and women who, having volunteered - largely in a 9/11-inspired environment - to join the fight against those presumed to threaten America, paid with their lives. What do we owe their memory? How about those yet to die? And is there a distinction between those two groups? This is how I frame the quandary we face.
I have long suspected that a similar calculus is going on in the head of the president and that his "return on success" mentality reflects his belief that anything short of total victory dishonors the dead. To a limited extent, Draper confirms my suspicion.
"The president repeated those words to me over and over," Draper told me this week, "and indeed volunteered to me at one point, saying, `I often hear those words.' He felt almost haunted by them. And I think that they are emboldening words to him. He has interpreted them as essentially `stay the course.'
"I don't want to suggest that the president's policy-making in Iraq comes solely as a result of talking to grieving widows and families of the fallen. But I do think that those words have had an impact on him, that he doesn't want to turn back to these individuals and say, `Sorry, but your son or daughter died for a lost cause.'"
But is that necessarily the case? Will fallen soldiers have died in vain if we leave Iraq without establishing a stable democracy?
I say no with regard to those who have died to date.
My rationale is based on how we got into this mess: The United States was attacked. The words never again were heard throughout the land. The notion of preemption was adopted against a backdrop of missed intelligence and lost opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden before 9/11. Saddam Hussein appeared to represent a similar threat. (Erroneous, it turned out, but widely believed at the time.) The United States took action. The rest has not gone as any American had hoped.
But anyone who died in voluntary service to this country based on those circumstances died with honor, not in vain. In the same way Pat Tillman is no less a hero to me, even though I know he died from friendly fire.
The issue becomes more difficult. I refer to the soldiers who Petraeus told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., we have continued to lose since the surge began (as we spend $9 billion per month). We know far more today than when we invaded. We realize that the war was initiated based on a false premise: the presence of WMD. Further, our continued occupation has stirred a hornet's nest in the Arab world. No doubt the most significant line of Petraeus' testimony came when Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked him whether the war in Iraq was making America safer, and he replied: "Sir, I don't know, actually."
Of course, if the Iraq war comes to a successful conclusion someday, no one will ask whether any soldier died in vain. But what if, after the current debate ends, we stay the course, sustain additional loss of life, and leave without victory?
Will the soldiers who died after serious questions were raised about our mission have died in vain?
I don't know that answer, but I believe that as time goes by without resolution, the odds increase that they will.
Last week, I sat in front of my television, notebook in hand, and watched the testimonies of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, awaiting guidance. I thought, perhaps naively, I might gain new insight into what is actually happening in Iraq. After all, who better to hear from than the men spending each day overseeing the military and political efforts there?
Every member of the House and Senate had an opinioned speech to offer, not a question they legitimately needed answered. That's what makes the current debate so difficult: It's impossible to believe what anybody says. Petraeus says he sees some success in the same places critics see failure. The president sees justification for a prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq where his rivals foresee more adversity and danger.
And all this while the commotion surrounding MoveOn.org's newspaper ad blared like a car alarm throughout the proceedings.
Still, what no one will directly address is the hard question that guides the president: What do we owe those who have spilled blood for this conflict? The resolve to see it through no matter what, or the courage to end it so that others don't find themselves similarly situated?
If only somebody could tell us loud enough to be heard over all the noise.