Columns, Politics, War
Feb 22, 1998
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Scars of past critical today


February 22, 1998

He was thinking across all the lost years this week as he witnessed three important people sitting on a stage in Ohio like a collection of houseplants, incapable of explaining why we are on the verge of dropping tons of bombs on Iraq to do a job that actually requires a single bullet. The presentation was jarring because it reminded the man of so many things that took place three decades ago, each of them, in retrospect, various acts of a play critics were unable to close.

“During the Cuban missile crisis, I was working at the Peace Corps during the day and going to Georgetown Law at night,” Harold Pachios said yesterday. “And I can recall Kennedy coming on TV to make the case for the blockade. He had charts and pictures and he explained the whole thing to us “I was thinking about that when I saw Madeleine Albright at Ohio State,” Pachios continued. “Where are the pictures? Where’s the evidence? They haven’t made the case yet.”

Today, Hal Pachios is a wonderful lawyer in Portland, Maine. He left the Peace Corps to work at the White House as an assistant press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, who had a dream of building a great society only to see it evolve into a nightmare, concocted by his own hand, which he was unable to remove from a bomb bay door over Vietnam.

Now, Pachios is talking about Johnson and a morning in 1966 when the two of them were at Bethesda Naval Hospital after the president had a gallbladder operation. Later, Johnson would pull his shirt out of his trousers to show reporters the scar from surgery. But that day in the hospital, he wanted to visit the wounded from a war that was killing the whole country along with LBJ’s good intentions.

“We went to a ward filled with wounded Marines,” Pachios recalled. “There was a small room with two beds in it off the main ward. It was for patients with severe head wounds. There were two Marines in that room.

“I’ll never forget it. The president walked in — I was with him — and we looked at the two Marines and it was shocking. They were children. Just kids. Maybe 18 at most.

“Johnson was stricken,” Hal Pachios said. “That’s the only word for it. That’s the only word I can use: stricken. Both boys were dead; they just didn’t know it yet.

“It was pretty rough stuff. It’s one thing to order bombing and move troops around, but then to go see the victims and realize that these were the children we send out to fight these wars, it’s tough,” Pachios pointed out. “People accuse Johnson of many things — some true, some not true — but I can tell you he was not insensitive to the price those kids had paid. I can tell you that for sure. He was shocked.”

All these years later and we’re treated to the hideous spectacle of another president at a different time who can’t even explain a ludicrous situation with a young intern, never mind clearly define the reasons why America might bomb an entire people because of our consistent failure to deal with their dictator. It’s as if the FBI decided to take out all of Brooklyn and Queens simply to get John Gotti.

That Iraq is not some Third World sewer seems lost on many of those in charge here. It is a huge nation of middle-class citizens who live without aspirin, penicillin or hot water and are used as human shields by their government to protect a butchering madman — an international crime boss, actually — who surely must have posed just as great a threat to world security in November as he does in February

So, the logical questions: Why now? And why mutilate innocents when, by Clinton’s own admission, there is no guarantee we will eliminate Hussein or end his ability to develop chemical and biological weapons?

Earlier in the week, speaking from the unthreatening environs provided by a Pentagon audience, the president smugly informed America it must not dwell in the past because the future had to be secured. But the past is critical to any assessment of action today because it is proof that when a nation’s culture becomes confused or corrupted by the foolish maneuvers of isolated leaders intent only on clinging to office, the scar left on our society is real and lingering. When the dust settles, we will see that hitting Iraq is not some antiseptic Nintendo-64 game where smart bombs leave no victims.

America is many things. However, a culture capable of glibly and safely easing itself into the 21st century after playing a lead role in the slaughter of innocents is not among them