Tuesday's cancellation of a visit to Forest Lake High School by Iraq War veterans in a giant bus labeled "Vets For Freedom National Heroes Tour" produced a bonanza of outraged media reports:

"Heroes banned by School! Minnesota hates the Heroes!"

Or maybe a Minnesota school was just trying to keep its students from becoming pawns in a political game.

There would not have been much outrage if that big bus, instead of saying "Heroes Tour," had been painted to say "Republican Tour to Shore Up the Pro-War Vote." But that would have been an honest paint job.

And it would have made clear why Forest Lake Principal Steve Massey -- now vilified by right wing radio and TV -- did what he did.

Massey and Forest Lake -- a patriotic small town with a Fourth of July parade where spectators stand and doff their hats and put their right hands over their hearts every single time an American flag goes by -- are getting a bum rap.

The visit to Forest Lake was worked out by Massey and Forest Lake alum Pete Hegseth, an Iraq veteran who heads Vets for Freedom. VFF says it is nonpartisan, but the liberal watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy said it began as a Republican front group managed by White House insiders.

Their plan? According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the plan is to drum up support for the war. The group's political bent was clear last year when it bought TV ads to thank Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., for supporting the war.

Hey, folks: It's an election year. Things may get ugly. They sure were in Forest Lake.

Permit me to say something: Vets for Freedom are real vets, their heroics are authentic (but not all heroes support the war) and their right to their opinion is unquestioned.

But uniforms and valor should not hide a political agenda. On that, they must be questioned. Even in a school. Especially in a school.

The veterans' visit was planned as a low-key classroom discussion about patriotism and service to country. Massey said school officials were aware that Vets for Freedom has a political agenda, but the visit was planned as a non-political classroom discussion. Then Massey says Hegseth's group decided to call a press conference at the school and alerted media. That caught the eye of anti-war activists, including veterans of Iraq who oppose the war. They called their own press conference and rally.

A social studies discussion was turning into a street fight.

"We had been excited about the vets coming," Massey says. "Then, lo and behold, they schedule a news conference on our campus. Time out. We had to step back in a context of (worrying about) safety. The last thing we wanted was a political presentation. We had the makings of a disruption."

Massey had little choice. He called off the visit, forcing the "Heroes" to move to a Legion club and opening the gates to a flood of misleading propaganda about a hero "snubbed" by his Alma Mater and vets turned away by cowards.

Massey has received 1,200 e-mails and 250 phone calls from people -- many far from Minnesota -- calling him a coward, a Communist or a spineless America Hater. You're getting a free history lesson, kids. Google "Dissent in America."

Most of the angry calls were generated by right-wing talkers who used the Forest Lake story to whip up manufactured outrage and reinforce the effort to keep Americans who support the Iraq War from abandoning ship and joining the large majority of Americans who don't think the war is worth more lives.

But all of the abuse hurled at little Forest Lake is nonsense.

"Our school employs many incredible veterans," Massey says. "We celebrate them and hold them up as role models and heroes. So to criticize our school as unpatriotic..."

I'll finish his sentence: It's ridiculous; it's demagoguery.

"You pay a high price to stand up and do the right thing," says Massey, who met with the VFW and American Legion commanders on Wednesday to try to repair some of the damage.

The Forest Lake fight turns out to be more than you could handle in a one-day discussion in Social Studies.

What is a hero? What is patriotism? What if you oppose a war supported by the public? Or want to fight one opposed by most people? Can a patriot be against the war? Why not? Are most Americans un-American?

Maybe it's un-American to say so. But I think high school kids should discuss all of this.

After all, they may soon be in Iraq, or Iran, themselves. But if they hear from Vets for Freedom, they should hear from Iraq Veterans Against the War, too. Or see "Body of War," a documentary about a soldier named Tomas Young who volunteered after 9/11 and was paralyzed in Iraq.

"Many of us volunteered with patriotic feelings in our heart," he says. Until he was "sent into the wrong country," to fight in Iraq, not Afghanistan.

Forest Lake shows how badly we need to talk about this war. And how very hard it is to do.

Nick Coleman ncoleman@startribune.com