Bracelets havent gotten this much play since middle school.
In a way, its fitting that the candidates both represented Americas contrasting views on the ever-mounting casualties of the War in Iraq through the same piece of jewelry. The bracelets represent a point of fundamental disagreement between the candidates: McCain believes that the loss of lives in Iraq is further reason to stay the course there, and Obama that it is proof that our strategy is unsustainable.
Obamas bracelet, although centered on pain, actually reflects a very rationalist attitude. It says we should not be influenced byas callous as it soundssunk costs, but rather should think about the future and how to best prevent further unnecessary suffering. It says that one bereaved family is less awful than two, and you have to defy number theory to get around that.
But when you cant beat a statement with logic, theres a good chance you can challenge it with emotional appeal and a dose of rhetoric about honor. And thats precisely what McCains bracelet does.
What meaning does the death of an American soldier have if the mission is declared unworthy? That a soldier dies fighting for a good cause is one of the few solaces for the soldiers family. Take that away, the bracelet argues, and the death loses its meaning.
We could leave the issue therejust as Obama and McCain chose to leave the two views as distinct pieces of metal in the minds of viewers. After all, any attempt to see this matter as anything other than two inherently opposing viewpoints would require concessions from both camps. So perhaps we should not press the issue.
Or should we? At the risk of sounding proverbial, we have two wrists, and can wear both bracelets. Can we reconcile the seemingly contradictory views?
Lets begin by analyzing McCains bracelet. What does it want? Thats easy enough: it wants to preserve the honor of a soldiers death. Americans have always been proud of military service because we see ourselves as a democratizing, liberating force of good, and therefore a soldiers life is never lost in vain. If the righteousness of the mission is called into question, so is the price that is paid to accomplish it. This formula used to serve Americans well even when we provoked unjustified wars because during our first hundred and seventy or so years as a nation we always won, and, as the victors, we could celebrate wars and write their histories as we pleased. Then, after World War II, we hit a losing streak.
As a POW, McCain was profoundly affected by Americas withdrawal from Vietnam, and last weeks debate showed just how raw those wounds remain. When Jim Lehrer asked about the lessons of Iraq, McCain, who has often said we could have won in Vietnam with more troops, said, We are winning in Iraq. And we will come home with victory and with honor. In McCains world, and that of his bracelet, victory and honor conspicuously go hand in hand. Even in a war that should not have been waged in the first place, victory, rather than justification, determines the honor of the day.
As long as this attitude is pervasive in America, we will continue to chase the honor of our fallen soldiers to all the wrong places. By pegging the honor of soldiers to the conflicts in question, we conflate the soldiers with the politicians who send them in harms way. Forthe soldier, honor is inherent in his or her personal sacrifice, while it is politicians whose reputations rest on the perceived necessity of a war. That is why we can honor soldiers killed in action without perpetuating a misguided war.
And Obamas bracelet? It argues its point cogently, but it rubs many people the wrong way because it neglects the topic just covered. And what of the dead soldiers honor? detractors fairly ask. Rather than simply presenting the need to minimize further casualties, Obama should have directly addressed this question of honor, as it is of crucial importance to military families.
Imagine how Obama would have upstaged McCain if he had worn two bracelets, and then proceeded to unite Americans around the promise of their shared meaning. Or maybe that would be a little too gimmicky, and hardly feasible in two minutes.