Powell's lesson

Section 60 and the Muslim patriot who gave his life.

Published October 20, 2008 1:07PM (EDT)

There is not much to add to Andrew Leonard's three fine posts Sunday about the Colin Powell endorsement, but I did want to comment on Powell's gutsy mention of one young Muslim American who gave his life in courageous service to his country.

That man was Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Kahn, who died a decorated soldier at the tender age of 20 in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This heartbreaking photo of his mother, Elsheba, mourning at her son's grave in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery ran as part of a photo essay in a recent issue of the New Yorker.

I went to Section 60 in Arlington after hearing Bob Woodward give a speech on my campus where he recommended that any American who had time to get there should go there. Living in D.C., I had no excuse. From Section 60, you can see the Pentagon, where Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his neocon cronies made the decisions and rashly "planned" for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Standing there, looking at the graves with the Pentagon in the background, is a powerful experience.

When I went in 2006 the fatality rates in Iraq were much higher than they are now, and I'm glad those rates have dropped. Back then, you could invariably see the most recent few graves, each with fresh dirt that was a little more worn down, settled and dried out as you peered down the row toward the older grave sites. And there was often a hole dug -- with two ladders over it so visitors didn't accidentally fall in -- complete with a temporary marker with the name of the fallen soldier or Marine scheduled next for burial. It humbles you, and quickly.

Powell pointed out that the picture of Elsheba Kahn shows not the Star of David or the Christian cross, but the star and crescent of the Muslim faith. The powerful point he was making is not only that America welcomes everyone who wants to be a "real," "pro-America" American (take that, Sarah Palin and Nancy Pfotenhauer) but also that Muslim Americans are fighting for their country in the Muslim world -- just as my own Italian and German (Catholic) ancestors fought the Germans and Italians in World War II.

What's sad is that it takes somebody like Powell -- a decorated veteran and general and Republican -- to make this sort of point without having to endure howls that he is some bleeding-heart, multicultural, soft-on-terrorism wimp.

So good for him, good for the late Cpl. Kahn and his justifiably proud family ... and good for the rest of us here in real America.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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