Sunday, March 14, 2004

Pro: Let U.N. rebuild the nation; bring our troops home

Should U.S. hand over the reins in Iraq?

What a difference a year makes. Soldiers were ordered into combat. Too many are not coming home. Those coming home will need our help and support.

Beginning a year ago in his State of the Union speech, President Bush sounded a drumbeat for war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and failure to act would bring imminent dire consequences to the American people, the president warned.

A few, myself included, tried to be heard above the drumbeats of war. We questioned the premise for launching a war, and argued instead for U.N. involvement aimed at finding the truth.

The president did visit the United Nations a year ago, but his message was clear: The United States would act unilaterally, the rest of the world be damned. The president's speech before the United Nations will go down in history as a declaration of a pre-emptive war.

To no one's surprise, U.S. military superiority overwhelmed the Iraqi army. Our armed forces continue to carry out the orders of the president with great skill and courage. U.S. soldiers are doing their duty. U.S. leaders are not.

Of late, the drumbeats of war are giving way to the shuffling of feet as the administration retreats in the face of compelling evidence that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction. The president used faulty intelligence, a hair trigger and poor judgment to set America on a course to war.

Now, it is time to face the truth and bear the consequences for a war without cause. As a psychiatrist and physician who treated returning combat veterans during the Vietnam War, I know firsthand what many soldiers will face. As a community, as a nation, we need to be ready. Understanding is the first step.

Medically, some of our soldiers almost certainly have been exposed to exotic diseases in Iraq, such as Leishmaniasis, an infection of the blood supply caused by the parasitic bite of a sand fly. It can take months for symptoms to appear, so a soldier infected in Iraq can come home seemingly healthy. There is no vaccine, but the disease can be treated if properly diagnosed.

Psychologically, soldiers who have braved the horrors of war can be stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychological wounds as dangerous as any physical wound. Without warning, this disorder can plunge a soldier's mind into the terror of reliving combat as real as being there. The results can be devastating, from sleepless nights disrupted by terrifying nightmares, to domestic violence unleashed by vivid wartime memories.

We owe our soldiers real thanks expressed in access and actions, as well as promising words. Soldiers coming home must have access to treatment in a timely manner. What's more, health-care professionals must look for the kinds of illness and disease soldiers may have. Families, friends and co-workers must be alert. The truth is, sometimes it's hard for a person to ask for help. Those close to the soldiers may need to.

We never should have invaded Iraq, but now we have a responsibility to the Iraqi people not to leave them in a new world of chaos that we created. Even the CIA warns of the very real threat of civil war in Iraq. Is this the president's definition of "mission accomplished"?

It is time to get the United Nations involved - what we should have done to begin with.

The administration will never admit it chose the wrong course at the wrong time for the wrong reason. Regardless, the world is coming to the conclusion that a year ago, President Bush launched weapons of mass misrepresentation. Now we have to deal with the results.


Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., is an eighth-term congressman from Seattle, a psychiatrist and the President of Americans for Democratic Action (www.adaaction.com) , the nation's oldest liberal organization. Readers may write to him at 1035 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.

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