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But the sniper had bugged out.

I crossed the river for the fourth time. When I reached the bank, I stood and watched the boy die. And I watched him die in my dreams every night for the next ten years. I will probably see him die on the day I do, and I will still grieve for him. I bear responsibility for his death, and I never knew his name.

In war, every digit of every casualty figure has a story like that attached to it, and every one is a tragedy for a family and for the comrades of the dead. We have objectivised language in the military. Dead babies are "collateral damage." Dead teenagers, last May's bright and hopeful high school grads, are "friendly" or "enemy casualties." There's a reason for the language. As long as you can think like that, you can keep fighting. But in the dark of the night, for all the long years that follow, they're just dead kids, and the tears that you've managed to postpone come at strange and inappropriate times.

But our leaders will not have these troubles with their dreams. Somehow this country is now run by people who think they're too good to fight for it.

This was dramatically brought home to me a few years ago when I was an editor in New York publishing. I learned that the editor-in-chief of our literary imprint had actually known James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity, a book I've read nine times. So I talked to her about Jones, and in the course of the conversation she mentioned that I was the only Vietnam veteran she had ever met.

My God, that was stunning. This woman was in the upper reaches of New York society. Her husband tried cases before the Supreme Court. She'd had Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and her husband to dinner the previous week. But she had never, neither socially nor professionally, knowingly met a Vietnam veteran.

But when our offices were moved in a corporate takeover, I stood in the halls and played Where-was-you-at? with the moving men. "Were you there for Tet?" "Were you in the Ia Drang?" Yes, they were.

About ten years ago the armed services pruned all the Vietnam vets they could from their ranks. The 'Nammers had had that experience of being sold out by the people they risked their lives for, their lives expended needlessly by people who did not go and did not send their children. For the most part these men were still brave, still willing, if necessary, to die for freedom. But they were entirely too prone to ask the question, "Is this trip really necessary?"

It would probably be politically impossible to invade Iraq with an army of draftees. With the all-volunteer Army we are spared those embarrassing questions about inequality of sacrifice.

I have heard and believe that during the entire course of the Vietnam War the son of only one congressman served. But those congressmen who did not send their sons, and did not send the sons of their college-deferred big contributors, voted with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to send the sons of their less-affluent constituents. This is as grand a betrayal as I can imagine.

So we are now led by people who did not serve, and whose children do not serve. There is no Lieutenant Rumsfeld waiting for the new gas masks for his platoon. There is no Navy pilot named Bush in this generation. Somebody's daughter will die, but it won't be Barb or Jenna.

It's interesting to me that no Vietnam vet has achieved the office of President of the United States. Those who have climbed as high as the senate have done so under special circumstances. One wonders if John McCain would have been elected if he'd merely been a fighter pilot and not a POW. One wonders if Bob Kerry would have gone so far if he'd not lost a leg. But both of them know the full horror of war. I'd be far more comfortable if the decision to invade or not invade Iraq were being made by such a man. They don't see "collateral damage." They see dead babies.

Since Vietnam, I don't think America trusts her military anymore. This is something of a mistake. There were next to no congressmen's sons in Vietnam, but every three or four weeks I'd pick up a Stars and Stripes and read where Lieutenant So-and-so, the son of General So-and-so, had been killed leading a Marine platoon. The military is probably the only segment of our society left that has that sense of noblesse oblige.

Saddam's military capabilities compared to those of the United States are almost laughable...unless we're right, and he has poison gas and biological agents and uses them. We'll still "win," but no one will be laughing because nothing will be funny.

The notion that we, the United States, can create "a stable democracy" in the Middle East strikes me as hubris of the highest order. But it's possible. We managed to create fairly stable, fairly democratic regimes in Japan and the Philippines after World War II, and they're still functioning more or less in that mode. So maybe this will work. But it's a very long shot. I'd just feel ever so much better if the people making the decisions carried the same risk as the people carrying them out. The only dogs they have in this fight are their money and their power. Bush won't personally know anyone who dies.

With the British upper classes the oldest son became lord of the manor, and the number two son went to the army, and number three to the church. The British Empire lasted a long time. But I do not think America will long be top nation. The people will lose faith in a leadership that expends America's sons and daughters like used Kleenex but sends its own to Harvard and Yale.

In Rome the Praetorians finally took to installing emperors from among their number. Then came the Visigoths.

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