updated 10/19/2004 1:07:11 PM ET 2004-10-19T17:07:11

Americans who disagree with the handling of the war in Iraq should keep their opinions to themselves — that’s the thinly veiled suggestion from Bush administration supporters who consider open criticism of Iraq policy an aid to the enemy.

“It’s very demoralizing” for U.S. troops, says retired Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who was an Army Special Forces unit commander in the Vietnam War.

“You’re either on one side, or you’re on the other,” said Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde.

Some former commanders, analysts and lawmakers agree that division at home can embolden the enemy and over an extended period might hurt troop morale.

McCarthyism cited
Others contend that it does neither — and say that even it if did, that’s the price of democracy.

“A lot of us are sick and tired of those ... who would question our patriotism when we exercise our rights and responsibilities as Americans and members of Congress,” Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., said at a recent hearing by the House International Relations Committee chaired by Hyde.

“I’m from Wisconsin, and I know McCarthyism when I see it,” Democratic Rep. David Obey said at another hearing, referring to the red-baiting hearings of the early 1950s that eventually disgraced the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis. “So let’s can the character attacks. ... Let’s try to figure out how you can get out of this hash by leveling with each other.”

President Bush suggested at the first debate that Democratic rival John Kerry would lose the Iraq campaign if elected because Kerry has said that it was the wrong war at the wrong time and a diversion from the real fight, which should target international terrorism.

'Comfort to the enemy'
“What message does that send our troops?” Bush asked, leaving the television audience of some 60 million to ponder.

“It gives aid and comfort to the enemy,” Singlaub said in a telephone interview after the debate.

Singlaub has suggested that even lawmakers should be muffled. If they expect criticism might come up at a congressional hearing, they should close it to the public and press.

But Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel teaching international relations at Boston University, said criticizing the critics is the same as demanding that Americans “blindly defer to those in authority.”

“It’s not only fundamentally undemocratic,” he said, “it’s also stupid.”

Says Bob Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation: “You know what these guys are doing? They’re redefining ... patriotism.”

Patriotism “used to be about what people do, the action people take, the willingness to put your life at risk and sacrifice for the greater good,” said Muller, a friend of Kerry’s since they returned from Vietnam service and protested that war. “Now patriotism is wearing lapel pins and being ideologically in step with the administration.”

Shades of gray
Yet the issue is not black and white.

Many defense experts agree partly with Singlaub, who says division at home “gives the impression to the enemy that we don’t have the strength of will ... to do what needs to be done.”

During the Vietnam conflict, the North Vietnamese fought to cause as many American casualties as possible to influence public opinion in a badly divided United States, said Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine lieutenant general.

Several other analysts said, however, that the Pentagon knows a foe will try to exploit dissent and any other perceived weakness. The best antidote, they said, is to formulate a clear strategy to win.

Indeed, some analysts said identifying, airing and debating problems is crucial to fixing them.

“It’s absolutely necessary,” said Trainor. “This is what democracy is all about — the will of the people as expressed through their representatives.”

Few defense analysts believe home-front debate has bothered U.S. forces significantly. If anything, soldiers in Iraq have complained that news reports focus too much on daily violence and setbacks and too little on the rebuilding of schools and clinics and other heroic work they’ve done in Iraq.

“The troops are watching, listening and learning about their leadership — about the war, about the value of getting an honest appraisal of what mistakes were made,” said retired Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO commander.

“I think they’re following very, very closely,” he said. “And they can separate what is criticism of the troops and what is criticism of political leaders who made decisions about the war.”

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