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The Hearts of All Sane Men

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So we bomb a school and then are aghast when seven children die. "If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that air strike would have occurred," a spokesman for what the media still bother to call "the coalition" said afterward, by way of explanation if not apology.

The public has mostly tuned out of these wars. Of those who still pay attention, many do so from behind Fortress Patriotism, with its ramparts of cliche: "freedom isn't free," etc. Thus when children die and it's our fault and publicity is unavoidable, the media will usually remove the stinger from each tiny death, and keep the American conscience untroubled, by putting the deaths in the larger context of U.S. strategy or mission.

We bombed the eastern Afghanistan compound, which contained a mosque and a madrassa (Islamic school), this past Sunday because we were hunting insurgents who may have been involved in the massive suicide bombing of a bus a few hours earlier in Kabul, which had killed as many as 35 people and wounded 52.

Got it? Next question . . .

But I linger in anger and wounded silence because, lacking belief in the pretext, stated goals or covert agenda of any of Bush's wars, I have no way to numb myself to their tactics, which, no matter how you frame or justify them, amount to hunting individual Taliban or al-Qaida suspects, in populated areas, with bombs and missiles, all but guaranteeing a high collateral kill count. We've been doing this from the very start. How did we come to believe we had that right?

"The way chosen by the United States (after World War II) was plainly marked by a few clear precepts, which govern its conduct in world affairs. . . . No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice."

This is Dwight David Eisenhower, near the end of the Korean War -- April 1953, addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- seeming to lay down for all time what mattered about America and what sort of hope it brought to Planet Earth. The speech was called "The Chance for Peace." In it, Ike let loose about how fed up he was with the Cold War economy, making a famous cost-benefit analysis:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. ... The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. ... We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat."

He went on for a while with such comparisons, finally thundering: "This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

Can we stand so much unbuffered idealism in a single dose? "This is one of those times in the affairs of nations," he said, "when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace. It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. It calls upon them to answer the questions that stir the hearts of all sane men: Is there no other way the world may live?"

Read it and wince. Whatever turning point we were at 54 years ago has slipped quietly beyond "the hearts of all sane men" and now we hunt evil from the sky, bomb schools and affect surprise at the carnage. This affectation is the last pale remnant of American idealism and morality.

But what's most disturbing about Ike's speech is that either he delivered it with his fingers crossed or he had no control over the malevolent forces then operating in America's name. Even as he spoke, for instance, the CIA was meddling with Mohammad Mossadegh's democratically elected, populist government in Iran, which fell four months later; and the next year, the CIA engineered a similar coup in Guatemala.

Even as he spoke, fallout from the U.S. military's above-ground nuclear-testing program in Nevada was poisoning livestock, milk and people -- and government spokesmen were assuring millions of irradiated downwinders, privately dismissed by the Atomic Energy Commission as "a low-use segment of the population," that they were perfectly safe. In fact, they were guinea pigs.

In the Eisenhower years, America's overt role on the world stage was to be a powerful force for good, but in its shadows, it was fighting a dirty war and preparing for a dirtier one. The toll to be exacted on the future would be cancer, global rancor, terrorism and an eroded value system in which even torture has a good name.

As Ike spoke about peace, the nation's soul was on loan to the Cold War and we never got it back.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2007 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.