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Editorial: Vets return medals to send heartfelt message

Updated: July 1, 2012 12:49PM

When nobody really knows, great humility is called for.

On Sunday morning, a group of 35 or so veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars explained with a certainty as unclouded as the sky over Lake Michigan why the United States should pull every last American soldier out of both countries immediately:

Osama bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is decimated. Our nation’s post-9/11 mission is accomplished.

“How many more civilians have to die in Afghanistan to make up for the civilians who died in New York City?” asked Brock McIntosh, an Afghanistan war veteran from Washington, D.C. “Enough. We are done.”

Yes, of course. How tired we Americans are of the bloodshed and the cost and, frankly, the arrogance that says our nation can set the world right. A sizable majority of Americans, polls show, are exhausted by war.

But then, no more than an hour after the protesting veterans held their press conference in Grant Park, Amnesty International — hardly a bastion of war-mongerers — released an open letter to President Obama and NATO imploring them to “keep their promise” to safeguard the rights of Afghan women. Amnesty International fears that the Taliban will coming roaring back if NATO troops are withdrawn too soon, and Afghan women and girls once again will be banned from work and school.

“Afghan women have never faced greater danger to the protection and advancement of their human rights,” wrote the letter’s signatories, who included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “Their human rights, their safety, their very lives, must not be sacrificed as U.S. Armed Forces withdraw from the country.”

Yes, of course. Having driven the Taliban from power, Americans are loath to see the gains made by Afghan women reversed. We are exhausted by war, but would prefer to end this one honorably.

Our own view is closer to that of Amnesty International. We see a sensible caution in Obama’s plan to withdraw most NATO troops, but not all, by 2014. And there is a strong argument to be made for a continued American noncombat presence for 10 years after that.

But nobody should feel optimistic. And nobody should wade into this debate with anything but intellectual humility. We certainly can’t argue with Sunday’s protesting veterans that Obama’s plan could prove a disaster. So much could go wrong between now and 2024, with that “noncombat presence” morphing into a “quagmire.”

At McCormick Place on Sunday afternoon, the leaders of NATO assembled in a majestically large circle to exchange views on the Afghan war. Out on sun-baked Michigan Avenue, the disenchanted veterans hurled their medals into the street, making their views known another way.

“We don’t want your medals,” Scott Kimball, a former infantryman from Champaign-Urbana who served in Iraq, said earlier. “They are dishonorable.”

Perhaps the real message of Sunday’s protest is that intellectual humility on the part of political leaders, pundits and others is in too short supply in the lead-up to wars — or we might not go to war so often to begin with.

The same humility, along with modest expectations of what can be achieved, should guide our exit from Afghanistan. Preserve if possible the gains that have been made, including the new rights for Afghan women.

But heed the word of those angry vets: Afghanistan is Afghanistan.

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