My travels set me down on Veterans' Day last week in charming Plymouth, Mass. The sky was a clear blue. The ocean sparkled under a warm autumn sun. White-hulled boats bobbed gently at anchor in the harbor. Families strolled. Children played. It was a bucolic scene.
Plymouth is rich in historical significance for Americans, for it was the site of New England's first permanent settlement of Europeans in 1620. So today tourists snap pictures of Plymouth Rock, enshrined on the seashore as a symbol of freedom. Over the years it probably has been more photographed than any Hollywood celebrity. A replica of the original "Mayflower," on which the first pilgrims traveled, was sailed across the Atlantic in 1957 as a gift from Britain and now commands the harbor. Several mid-17th century homes still stand, and artifacts and original records of the first settlers are carefully preserved in the little town museum, itself built in 1824. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Plymouth, Mass. as the first European settlement in America.]
The museum collection tells of the pilgrims' flight from religious persecution, of the hardships they endured in their first terrible winter on New England's soil, which took half of their number in death, but also of their ultimate triumphs in pursuit of freedom.
Over the centuries, this cradle of liberty has sent its menfolk, along with others from New England, to a string of wars to preserve freedom abroad as they have won it at home. Now they have gone again, to Iraq.
Patriotism runs high in these independent states of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. But here, too, as in the other states of the USA, there is debate and division about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq.
For many years veterans in Boston have marched through the streets of the Back Bay area on Nov. 11 to the wail of bagpipes and the waving of flags. This year the parade was canceled. Spokesmen for the American Legion, which hosts it, say it was because the number of spectators lining the parade route has been getting smaller. But spokesmen for Veterans for Peace, an antiwar group, say the parade was canceled to stop them from demonstrating.
Meanwhile in Waterville, Maine, peace activists who planted 2,000 little white flags on the edge of Veterans Memorial Park, in remembrance of American soldiers who have died in Iraq, were confronted by other veterans who saw the white flags as a call for surrender and desecration of holy ground.
Reflecting on all this in the peace and calm of a little New England town, far from the violence and anguish of Iraq, it is inconceivable that anybody should be eager to exchange the former for the latter. And of course, very few are. Hardly anybody goes eagerly to war. But sometimes the use of military force is either thrust upon us, or is the last resolve to correct some blatant injustice, or forestall some threat.
Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who tortured and ordered the killing of his own people and denied them liberty. The world is well rid of him. Few can regret that. To me, the central question today is not whether the United States did wrong in eliminating him, but whether the president of the US knowingly lied to the American people about the reasons for launching that war. President Bush argued that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, perhaps maybe even a nuclear weapons program. There is no question that the president moved on intelligence assessments that later proved invalid.
But to gamble that Hussein did not have WMDs, Mr. Bush would have had to disbelieved the British, who said Hussein had them; the other European nations who believed he had them; the United Nations, which believed he had them; the Saudis, who told the president Saddam had them; the Clinton administration, which believed Hussein had them; and most major intelligence services in the world, which also believed Hussein had them. Even more oddly, the president would have to have disbelieved Hussein himself, who played a clever shell-game trying to persuade the UN he did not have WMDs, while simultaneously winking to others, and even his own generals, that he did have them.
The American people must decide whether Bush, in the face of all this opinion, was lying and really knew Hussein did not have these weapons, or whether he believed, on the basis of overwhelming opinion at the time (which ultimately proved to be wrong), that the threat was real.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.