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Coat holder

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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 8:59 p.m.

When Mitt Romney talks tough to other nations, as he did last week at the Virginia Military Institute, he sure sounds like a coat holder. If you remember the streets of your youth, you know about that guy who talks a good game, always quick to incite a fracas, but never one to throw a punch.

In fact, just before the fight starts, he tells his pals, “I'll hold your coats.” Then, he steps back, retreating from the very fight that he promoted, proving that tough talk is cheap, especially when someone else has to pay the bill.

That's how Romney approached the Vietnam War. He supported the war while a freshman at Stanford, as was his right, protesting against those students who had occupied the president's office in a demonstration against the war.

But in 1966, Mitt passed on the chance to fight in the war that he supported. Again, that was his right, and he opted instead for a religious deferment that allowed him to spend 1966 to 1968 working as a missionary in France. Those were also among the deadliest years of the war.

It was a confusing time. Americans were deeply split between those who believed that patriotism demanded that they volunteer, or go when called, and those who thought it was their patriotic duty to oppose the war, some even leaving the country to avoid the draft.

Romney was the rare young man who publicly supported the war, then left the country, avoiding military service. Every young person has youthful misjudgments, some born of confused idealism and others rooted in fear of the unknown, and most try to learn from those early lessons.

But there Romney was again, giving a jingoistic speech at VMI that seemed out of character for a guy whose only big battles have been around a corporate negotiating table, not in a rice paddy or behind a sand dune. He chastised President Obama for being soft, claiming that U.S. troops left Iraq too soon, sounding like Dick Cheney and the neocons who got us into that war on a ruse.

And he talked tough about Syria and Afghanistan, saving special threats for Iran. Like the patriarch of a military family that will not hesitate when called to duty, which he distinctly is not, he sounds too eager for war.

Neither major party has a veteran on its ticket this time. And because our Founders wisely provided for civilian control of the military, we will always have leaders without combat experience sending other Americans off to war. But sober judgment is required of those leaders.

In our system, saber-rattling should be left to those who are actually on the battlefield, not the civilian leader in a well-pressed suit. It is the blood of others that will be shed.

When Romney rattles his saber, he starts to sound like he will too easily trade it for the coats of those he is sending off to fight.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (

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