The debate over the war in Iraq has lately occasioned more than the usual share of falsehoods, libels, and incivility that degrade politics in our excessively partisan times. Not long ago, a member of the House of Representatives from my party suggested that Jack Murtha, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, a decorated Marine veteran of two wars, was a coward for despairing that U.S. forces in Iraq could prevail over the insurgency there at an acceptable cost in American lives and treasure.
I strongly disagree with Mr. Murtha's recommendation to terminate our military involvement in Iraq, fearing that a near-term withdrawal from Iraq would have catastrophic consequences—civil war in Iraq, widespread instability throughout the Middle East, a secure terrorist base from which to plan and launch future attacks on Americans and our allies, to name the three most disturbing. But I know what motivates his mistake, and I honor him for it. Jack Murtha doesn"t just praise the men and women of the United States armed forces or appreciate them or respect them or salute them on Veterans Day. He loves them—truly loves them. And he is sick at heart that so many of them have been killed or wounded in this war. He doesn't want to lose any more of them. That is, I believe, what motivated my friend's mistaken recommendation, and I love him for his compassion. To call such a man a coward or to cast doubt on his patriotism is disgraceful. And while the Bush administration had an obligation to rebut Mr. Murtha's argument, its initial reaction, in which the White House spokesman compared him to the left wing filmmaker Michael Moore, was, to put it mildly, unfair and disrespectful.
Likewise, some of the opponents of the war have disgraced themselves by substituting calumnies and mistruths for honest debate. They charge that President Bush lied us into war, inventing intelligence on Iraqi WMD stockpiles and plans when he really wanted to invade Iraq to increase the profitability of Halliburton and U.S. oil companies. The plain truth is that our intelligence community, as well as the intelligence services of many other countries, wrongly concluded that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
As many Democrats as Republicans in Congress also believed it. It's one thing to argue that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. It's a lie to claim the President lied about his reasons. I sat on the Robb-Silverman Commission investigating that intelligence failure. I could not find one intelligence analyst, even among those who might have disagreed with the President's decision to go to war, who, when asked, agreed that the administration applied any pressure on them to influence or hype their conclusions. To charge that the President would deceive this country in the most fateful decision any President makes is as serious an attack on one's patriotism as you can make, and those who have repeated this libel should be ashamed of themselves.
Politicians will argue, and that is not a bad thing. We have differences on how best to govern this country and they are worth fighting about. But our differences should not become more important to us than our shared love of country. We should not regard them as evidence of our opponents' character flaws or let an argument on principle become a personal grievance.
We should not come to love the privilege of office so dearly that in moments of weakness we set that privilege above the interests of the nation. Such is the case when we place partisan advantage above principle; when we offer calumnies instead of honest debate; and when we squander in a time of war our nation's wealth on parochial concerns that have no greater effect than strengthening the prospects for our re-election. There are greater honors than long tenure in elected office—and greater causes, too.
The sacrifices made in our defense will not be borne equally. They never are. But we all have a moral obligation to do what we can to ensure our country remains worthy of the greater sacrifices that will be made by others. Our obligation is not to exacerbate divisions among us or coarsen political debate with cheap sentiments and baseless accusations. Our obligation is to build upon the accomplishments of our storied past. For there will never be another nation such as ours, and we must take good care of her.
John McCain is a Republican U.S. senator from Arizona and a retired Navy captain. With Mark Salter, he is the author of Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember , published in October by Random House.