I’ve been reading presidential debate transcripts to get some op-ed ideas. Here’s my nomination for the most bizarre discussion. It starts off with Mike Gravel saying the obvious:

QUESTION: … My question is for Mike Gravel. In one of the previous debates you said something along the lines of the entire deaths of Vietnam died in vain.

How do you expect to win in a country where probably a pretty large chunk of the people voting disagree with that statement and might very well be offended by it?…

GRAVEL: … John, it’s a set up question. Our soldiers died in Vietnam in vain. You can now, John, go to Hanoi and get a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone. That’s what you can do. And now we have most favored nation trade.

What did all these people die for? What are they dying for right now in Iraq every single day? Let me tell you: There’s only one thing worse than a soldier dying in vain; it’s more soldiers dying in vain.

What does it mean to “die in vain”? At absolute minimum, if a bunch of people died, and you got the same outcome as you would have gotten if they had stayed home, they “died in vain,” right?

Economists might want to make an average/marginal distinction here. But if the marginal AND the average effect of deaths is zero, then men died in vain. Period. But of course, very few politicians (especially the ones with a chance of winning) want to admit this ugly truth. Some dance around it; others just deny the obvious:

COOPER: Senator Obama, are the soldiers dying in Iraq in vain?

OBAMA: Our soldiers have done everything that’s been asked of them. They deposed Saddam Hussein.

They have carried out extraordinarily difficult missions with great courage and great bravery.


When I am president of the United States, when I send our troops into battle, I am going to be absolutely sure that it is based on sound intelligence, and I’m going to tell the truth to the American people, as well as the families who are being asked to sacrifice.

COOPER: To the question of, did the troops — are the troops dying in vain, though: Yes or no?

OBAMA: I never think that troops, like those who are coming out of The Citadel, who do their mission for their country, are dying in vain…

COOPER: Senator Edwards, are the troops — did the troops in Vietnam die in vain?

EDWARDS: I don’t think any of our troops die in vain when they go and do the duty that’s been given to them by the commander in chief. No, I don’t think they died in vain.

The funny thing is that this is the candidates are trying to win votes in Democratic primaries, so their audience’s commitment to nationalist dogma is well below average.