On December 23, 1783, George Washington, having successfully lead the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, appeared before the Continental Congress and resigned his commission as commander of the armed forces.
It was a quietly pivotal action in the history of our young country, an event so important in shaping the nation that it is one of only eight moments in our history deemed worthy enough of gracing the walls of the Capitol rotunda.
A painting of Washington’s historic act hangs not far from this chamber alongside more well known moments in American history like the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The precedent that Washington set on that December day was as revolutionary as it was clear—in the United States of America, the power to make and execute war would be held not by the military, but instead by peacefully elected leaders sitting in a legislative body.
Washington understood that the will of the people should be the guiding hand of government, even on questions of war and peace.
I wonder what President Washington would say if he could see us today?
For two weeks now I have watched the Republican leadership engage in legislative games and political posturing to avoid taking a vote on a war they support simply because they do not like what the outcome of the vote might be.
They have turned their backs on their responsibility to the people that elected them and to our troops because they do not like that they may lose a vote.
Four years ago 23 of us stood up and voted against this war. It was not popular. We knew we would not win. But we did it, because as elected leaders charged with overseeing the United States Armed Forces we had a responsibility to voice our opinions for the record on the question of war.
I have stood on the floor of the Senate time and again to voice my opposition to this escalation. Sending more Americans into combat without a strategy for success will not improve the situation on the ground in Iraq and it will not bring our men and women in uniform home any sooner.
Only the Iraqis can secure Iraq, and American troops cannot be seen as a substitute for Iraqi resolve. Why would we go further down the path that has lead us to this point? Why would we repeat our previous mistakes and call it a new strategy?
Unlike the President, all of us and our counterparts in the House will go home over recess and on weekends and face our constituents. They are our neighbors. We see them and talk to them at church, in line at the bank, at our kids’ schools and at countless events and meetings as we travel around our states.
And we are here because they elected us to be their voice.
Mr. President, let me remind you, this is not Washington DC’s war. We may set policy here and we may make speeches here and we may take votes here, but this is America’s war.
The men and women putting their lives on the line in Iraq every day are from our smallest neighborhoods and our biggest cities, from farm communities and factory towns, from places many of us have never heard of and few of us will ever go.
Flint. Howell. West Branch. Hemlock. La Salle. Port Huron. Ypsilanti. Muskegon. Ann Arbor. Byron. Flushing. Bay City. Canton. Paw Paw. Lake Orion. Saginaw. Sand Creek. These are only some of the dozens of communities in my state of Michigan that have given up a son or a daughter to this war.
We sit here in this historic Capitol and argue over whether we should dignify this war with a simple vote while these and other communities across the country bury their loved ones; while high schools hold vigils for alumni laid to rest too young; while churches comfort parishioners who have lost sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers.
We are the voice of these communities, of these towns and cities and counties. We were elected with their sacred trust to come here to Washington and to speak out for them, to make our mark for them on the issues that face this country.
By continuing to stonewall a vote on this resolution the Republican minority has stripped all of America of their voice in this debate. They have said to the people that elected us that this issue, the issue of escalation of war, is not important enough for their elected representatives to consider.
Too often in the white noise of politics we lose sight of the responsibility we bear. We get bogged down in the politics of partisanship and loose sight of why we were elected. We owe it to the American people to take this vote. This is the most serious issue of our time. There is nothing more important or more pressing than our nation being at war. It is the responsibility of the Congress to engage in shaping policy concerning the war on behalf of the American people.
Let me take a few minutes to remind everyone what is at stake here. While some posture and jockey for legislative position, lives are on the line. It doesn’t matter if you support or oppose the war, anyone involved in slowing the vote on this resolution should be ashamed. Our military has not failed us at any turn in this endeavor, but we are failing them as a body by failing to lead.
What is at stake?
On January 21st the Grand Rapids Press published the following account on the war in Iraq:
"The first roadside bomb four months ago knocked a front tire off Kyle Earl's Humvee, rang his head like a bell and made his ears bleed.
"The second bomb a couple of weeks later blew out the front tires and took out the transmission but, again, spared Earl serious injury.
"The third one, on Oct. 17, was his last.
"With the headlights out for security and wearing night-vision goggles, the 20-year-old Marine lance corporal from Cedar Springs was driving the lead Humvee returning from a night patrol in Iraq's Al Anbar province near the border with Syria. He and a Marine manning the Humvee's machine gun saw it at the same time: a hump in the road ahead, a sure sign of a buried improvised explosive device (IED).
"Earl instantly made the calculation: If he swerved, the trailing Humvee carrying the company commander would hit the IED, so "I drove right into it, knowing it was probably going to kill me," he said.
"He ran over the hump, igniting three 155-mm artillery shells and five propane tanks. The flash, amplified by the night-vision goggles, was brighter than anything he'd ever seen. A fireball shot through the cab, and shrapnel pierced his right leg, arm and face. The shock wave felt like someone had placed him inside a plastic bag and sucked out all the air.
"Still, he remained conscious, as the Humvee rolled off the road and came to a stop. Blood streamed from his eyes, ears and nose. He reached for his 9 mm handgun, but noticed something about the size of his palm on it. He picked it up and examined it, unaware it was a chunk of his flesh, ripped from his right forearm.
"He smelled something burning and realized he and the Humvee were on fire. He rolled out onto the ground as his fellow Marines kicked him to extinguish the flames."
On November 16th 2006 the Detroit Free Press gave us this insight into life on the ground in Iraq:
"A few days ago, from out of a crowd of kids, one of them threw a grenade and it went off under the vehicle, and my executive officer's door was peppered," said Lance Cpl. Michael Rossi, a 28-year-old student majoring in urban planning at Wayne State University who lives in Detroit. "A crowd of kids, and one of them threw a grenade."
"Out here," he said, "nobody is safe."
Too often on the floor of this chamber, and too often in politics, we use words like bravery and toughness and resolve. We describe votes as tough, we describe speeches as brave. The men and women serving America in combat know the real meaning of these words. They go about their dangerous duty with the pride of professionals. They live and work under a shadow of violence, never knowing what might be facing them around the next corner, and they do it with stoic resolve that reflects their character and their training.
They do not have the luxury of picking and choosing when and where they will fight. They go where their country sends them and stand shoulder to shoulder with their brothers and sisters in arms and face whatever is thrown at them. What we consider heroic they consider doing their job.
Their sacrifices deserve and demand leadership. We owe it to them, and to every person who we were elected to represent, to vote on this resolution. It is our job, and it is time to stop stalling and face our responsibility, a responsibility that pales in comparison to that taken on every day by our troops Iraq.
Thank you Mr. President.
Speech from http://www.senate.gov/~stabenow/press/2007/021607StabenowFloorSpeechonIraqResolution.htm, August 27, 2007.