‘This Chamber Reeks of Blood’

These were the words of Senator George McGovern, uttered on September 1, 1970. Together with Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, McGovern had introduced an amendment to a military procurement bill that would have required all US troops to be out of Vietnam by a fixed date. By that time, it was clear that the war had been lost and that the White House was needlessly dragging out the withdrawal period in order to delay an embarrassing defeat. Meanwhile Americans and Asians were dying every day and the country of Cambodia had been dragged into the maelstrom.

Here is what McGovern said:

"…This Chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land-young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces, or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious venture…"

It does not take any courage at all for a Congressman or a Senator or a President to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed.

These words could have been written this week, when the House debated for one hour the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. This time it was Congresswoman Barbara Lee, whose amendment to the 2013 Defense Appropriations bill would have required the safe and responsible withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan.

Indeed in language less dramatic, the Congresswoman pleaded with her colleagues — as she has been doing for many years now — to stop this "unconscionable" waste of American and Afghan lives. The American people, she noted, "overwhelmingly want to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end." And the evidence that the American project there is failing is all too clear.

One question she did not ask, perhaps from simple politeness: How many people sitting in this Chamber seriously believe that by 2014 the situation there will be significantly improved? It’s a fair guess that they are few in number. And yet when the time came to vote on the amendment, it was a lopsided 107 Ayes to 312 Noes. Whatever their actual beliefs may be, these Representatives have surrendered their Constitutional "power of the purse," and by so doing virtually insured the unnecessary death, disability or psychic trauma of Americans and Afghans they will never see, but whose suffering will be no less real.

The $88.5 billion to continue the war in Afghanistan, is only one of a long list of reasons why the FY 2013 Defense appropriations bill should have been defeated. Reasonable people might wonder why the United States should spend $606 billion on "defense" when our military budget is larger than that of the next ten nations combined? Or why we are paying tax dollars to assassinate alleged enemies around the world, when these attacks foster greater hatred and multiply adversaries? Reasonable people can ask why at a time when the US government is cutting back on vital social services and can’t afford a jobs program, or school lunches for low income kids — we should squander tens of billions of dollars on overpriced, useless weapons systems? One might reasonably wonder about these things, but this did not prevent the House of Representatives from passing a $616 billion Defense Appropriations bill in another lopsided vote.

One thing is abundantly clear: when it comes to military matters members of Congress will not do the right thing unless there is intense public pressure and scrutiny. Until their offices are swamped with restless, outraged constituents, too many will walk in lockstep with whatever military program is before them. Between now and November, many of these Representatives will be all over their districts, seeking reelection. This is a fine occasion for them to hear from voters prepared to challenge their choices — when those choices so evidently undermine our real national security.

At the end of his September 1970 speech, Senator George McGovern said this:

"…we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war, those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the constitution places on us."

Add women to the sentence and correct for politeness and this is what Congresswoman Barbara Lee said this week. But without a mobilized, engaged public, a few unusual and idealistic politicians will be making these speeches forever. 

Author: Carolyn Eisenberg

Carolyn Eisenberg is co-founder of Brooklyn for Peace and co-convener of the Legislative Working Group of United for Peace and Justice.