But everyone understands -- or used to understand -- that in time of war there are other considerations that affect (or should affect) the tone of criticism and even the substance. "Loose lips sink ships" was a slogan memorialized on posters during World War II. It was an appeal to Americans to voluntarily restrict their own exercise of free speech to save their fellow citizens' lives. It was a recognition that there are expressions that support and strengthen a democracy at war, and there are those that weaken it and undermine itself defense.
In a war like the present one, where the enemy walks among us and can kill thousands of civilians at a stroke, it is important to recognize the difference between criticism that supports the war effort and criticism that undermines it, even if the actual line between them is not always easy to discern. Some criticism is maliciously intended, and some criticism in itself can constitute an assault on America that weakens our democracy and undermines our defense.
Before the fighting started in Iraq, some critics voiced a concern that an armed intervention would cause the "Arab street" to erupt and inflame the Muslim world. Such a criticism was voiced by Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Adviser in the previous Bush Administration. It was obviously made from legitimate concerns for America's security and (it may be said) a substantial amount of the criticism of the war in Iraq is based on similar concerns. Scowcroft's attack on the President's policy was a harsh criticism. He said that under no circumstances should the President go to war over Iraq. But it was obvious that Scowcroft's criticism was made from legitimate concerns about America's security, concerns which proved wrong when Saddam was toppled in the swiftest and least costly victory on historical record, and without the consequences that Scowcroft imagined.
A large part of the criticism of the war, however, has been made on grounds that have nothing to do with American security. Often, it's voiced in such a way (and to such a reckless degree) as to undermine that security. It was quite another thing, for example, when the war was won, for leftist critics to launch an all-out attack on the Commander-in-Chief by calling him a liar and the war a "fraud." It is quite another thing to make these unfounded charges when our troops are still in Iraq and still in harms way, and Saddam's allies like the French are drumming up world opinion against us. It is quite another thing, in these circumstances, to say that the President lied to the American people and sent our troops to die under false pretenses. When this is done by people who supported the war it is an even more egregious betrayal. Yet that is what leaders of the Democratic Party did within two months of the liberation of Baghdad, most shamefully among them Ted Kennedy and Al Gore, but also John Edwards and Jimmy Carter and John Kerry, and of course Howard Dean.