Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said, "all politics is local." These days, morality, too has taken on a vexingly localized quality.

If you live in a southern state or near a military base, chances are pretty good that you're seeing lots of support for U.S. troops. You're probably hearing sermons about how fitting it is that America should be fighting tyranny again, this time in Iraq.

By contrast, here in the western part of Tip's old home state, Massachusetts, the nation's most liberal, anti-war protests have grown louder every day. This phenomenon isn't limited to college towns or northeastern cities, either. Anti-war sentiment is a rising national tide, a trend advanced by the fact that this is an unusual war, a preemptive war.

Wherever the sound of protest emanates, nearby or far away, frankly, the high, haughty moral bleating I frequently hear bugs the heck out of me. Believe me, nobody knows war's savagery as well as an old soldier. But my most outspoken, best-educated neighbors have no combat experience and scant appreciation for the work of the military. They are good people, to be sure: but what irritates me is that they're as secure in their own righteousness as President Bush is certain of his. It seems both sides are equally arrogant, our loudest hawks and cooing doves.

Recently, Buz, my good friend and neighbor, told me he hopes someone stands up at our next town meeting to ask the town to oppose this ill-conceived war. (Buz is town moderator. He must remain impartial and can't make a motion himself.)

Debating the war would be wildly inappropriate, I scoffed. Town meetings should focus on mundane issues like road and school budgets, I said, not lurch into foreign policy.

Buz counter-punched: 230 years ago, he reminded me, New England's homely little town meetings changed the world. Our Yankee forefathers spawned a democratic movement that became a revolution. These local meetings should still be thinking beyond their town's borders, he argued.

He has a point, I concede. Moreover, Buz acts on his convictions. Every Saturday, he joins a few dozen townspeople who stand vigil in front of town hall, praying, singing, and carrying signs, calling for peace.

I admire Buz, even though I flatly disagree with him. His T-shirt reminding us that dissent is patriotic is right on target. I also appreciate that Buz isn't as smug as many activists who chant the simplistic mantra that war is bad and peace is good. Of course, that's true: it's a colossal, staggering truism. However, it's a truth that ignores some complicated, unpleasant facts: people who have big guns, nasty weapons, and no record of attendance at Friends Meetings must be stopped, or they will do great harm.

I agree that peace should be the goal of every moral American, including, most especially, every uniformed American. But here's the paradox: it doesn't follow that opposing all war is uniquely moral. Sometimes evil people make war -- because they can -- and sometimes, opposing them is the unpleasant, nasty, even brutish, but necessary business of valiant, moral people who happen to wear military uniforms.

Pacifists succeed when they oppose civilized foes. Gandhi was able to persuade Great Britain to withdraw from India. He might not have faired so well against, say, Genghis Khan. By his fearless non-violent example, Martin Luther King moved a nation to end segregation. However, a tactic that succeeded when LBJ and RFK were in power might have been suicidal if deployed against Jefferson Davis.

Anti-war sentiment was never stronger than in enlightened, war-weary, rapidly disarming Great Britain in the mid-30s. Yet pacifists were not only powerless to prevent the onset of the greatest slaughter in the history of the world, they may have unwittingly encouraged Hitler's Blitzkrieg that rolled over the poor, doomed Polish cavalry.

Peace, when it came seven bloody years later, was forged by superior, raw military strength.

Ours is a free land in which citizens can stand up and shout their opposition to the crummy government of the moment. We can thank tens of thousands of long-dead militiamen, sailors, and soldiers for the freedom to disagree.

I've been on both sides of the protest line myself. When I was fighting in an unpopular war 35 years ago, it bothered me to hear that protesters were calling my buddies and me "baby-killers." The only slaughter of innocents I ever saw was one perpetrated by our enemies. But the fact that protestors were opposing the war never bothered me much. Indeed, I voted for Hubert Humphrey because he promised to end the war - "Great," I thought, "I'll get home sooner." And when I finally got home, missing a few small chunks of flesh but more or less intact, I protested the war myself.

Vietnam was an especially rotten war. I figured I'd earned the right to a new opinion, but after marching a few times, I dropped out, disturbed by the simple-minded self-importance and moral certainty of my new anti-war mates.

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