More than 35 years later, these three members of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War gathered on a recent winter's evening and talked about the impending war in Iraq: how their Vietnam experiences have shaped their views on war, the disintegration of Americans' civil liberties, the portrayal of war as entertainment, the draft, war's impact on innocent people, and the growth of the anti-war movement.

War has long been portrayed as entertainment, which desensitizes people to the violence. To gear up for the war on Iraq, video games allow players to pretend to be a member of Special Forces. During the Vietnam era, the entertainment was low-tech: comic books that portrayed American soldiers killing Communist Vietnamese forces. This image is from Deadly Masquerade, "Jungle War Stories" April-June 1964. Published by Dell Publishing Co.

Although the U.S. doesn't have the support of the United Nations, nor any of its allies except Britain, it appears we're going to war against Iraq as early as February. What do you think the ramifications will be? What do you think of the U.S.' policy of conducting a preemptive war?

Wetzler: The administration hasn't made any kind of case that attacking Saddam is going to make us less vulnerable or safer. I think it will be quite the opposite. It will destabilize the region and the American people in the long run will end up paying more. There is the idea of a credibility gap between the statements of the U.S. government and the military and the reality of situation. Two weeks ago, there seemed to be an attempt to deny any interest in oil. They have since backtracked because it's too obvious to too many people that it's a major component of U.S. policy. As veterans, we have some sort of responsibility that if our sons and daughters are going to be sent on some kind of errand, we owe it to them that it's not a fool's errand.

Fichtner: The U.N. inspectors might stay in to allow people to come to their senses.

Elder: They could be there for a year and still there would be no assurance that they would find everything. It's doubtful that they have as much time as they need.

Wetzler: If we go through with this war and then what? Will we be safer? What does it cost - in terms of money or lives?

Elder: This may be totally utopian thinking, but every time a missile is fired it is cheating the community I teach in. I have 30 kids in one classroom in a public school, which is an obscene number. There is a connection I can't ignore.

Fichtner: When we first talked of going into Iraq, the people that were questioning it were the officers that served in Vietnam - the generals and Colin Powell - they were saying 'Go slow. Let's not rush into things.' The chickenhawks - Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney - were pushing it. There is a complete change in the way we think of war now - as a preemptive strike. If we do this, why wouldn't India decide they should take care of Pakistan before it gets its third or fourth bomb? I thought we learned something about wars, yet we seem to be ratcheting up to a whole new type of war.

Tom Wetzler was only 18 when he was sent to Vietnam: "I didn't know what war was like before I went in." Photo by Mark Greenberg

Wetzler: Preemptive war means our policy runs contradictory to yours. It means every country is subject to a preemptive war if it threatens American interests. If every country in the world is a prospective enemy, it means we are the enemy of everyone in the world.

Elder: We need to find ways to moderate our appetite for oil and goods. It not only engenders goodwill from those who see us as spiritually bereft, but we may find ourselves with more friends.

Since your sons and daughters are of drafting age, what do you think of U.S. Representative Charles Rangel's comment about reinstating the draft, that if it were to happen and people had to send their children to war, it would give us pause before we started invading Iraq?

Fichtner: I like the idea of a draft for the very reason Rangel talks about, and that goes for men and women.

Wetzler: The draft question is a white elephant. Rumsfeld has been making the statement that the military is quite happy with an all-volunteer army. No one can say, 'I was drafted and I didn't want to go.' The military is saying they'll only have to call up half of what they did in the Gulf War. No one is saying what happens after that. If troops are committed to Iraq for a long period of time, not to mention what happens on the Korean Peninsula, then our troop requirements will be more than have today.

I made it point to talk to a ROTC officer today at UTSA, where I'm a student. Now, ROTC is different than active duty, but he said that after 9-11, on the UTSA campus there was a 50 percent increase in recruits, but he's not sure if its patriotism or the downturn in economy. I don't really know if people are going in for the experience or they want the GI bill or it's purely altruistic. At 18, I went in for all three reasons. I didn't have ability to say that everything I'd been taught so far is wrong. That's why they go after whom they go after.

It appears that popular culture is preparing, or even desensitizing a generation for war through videogames. There are several where you can pretend to be a member of Special Forces or a Navy Seal. What do you think of war as entertainment? And do those of drafting age know what they're in for if they go to war?

Wetzler: I didn't know what war was going to be like before I went in. No one is ever prepared to understand what war is like. There is nothing that does that. A certain hardwire that makes it accepted, but war is not a natural state of affairs. On a social level, we have to train and allocate resources to it. There is no natural process in this. The games are a sanitized version; I still have comic books published by Dell in the 1960s that were stories of Vietnam geared toward teen-agers. They pushed the government line at the time.

Elder: A lot of GIs are surprised about ingenuity of the enemy. I don't know if we're ready to attack a civilization that's been in place for 6,000 years. It's not going to be easy in any sense of the word.

Many people, and not only pacifists, are concerned about innocent Iraqi civilians dying in the war. Considering 2 million Indo-Chinese civilians died in Southeast Asia during Vietnam, how has your war experience shaped your view of "the innocents?"

Elder: I used to sit on a hill overlooking Cam Rahan Bay and admire the U.S.S. New Jersey firing rounds into the hills. In a sense it was hypnotic and beautiful. Then I realized I didn't want to be where those shells were landing.

Wetzler: And there are still people being blown up by ordinances and explosives in the ground.

Fichtner: We always think of civilians as the innocents. The soldiers that are killed are thought of as the enemy, as evil, and that they deserve to die. Most of these Iraqi soldiers would not choose to be soldiers, they were probably drafted and serving their time. They're not part of the regime; they're just people, just as innocent as the children and civilians.

Vietnam veteran Bill Fichtner: "I worry when we have a president who says, 'If you're not for us then you're against us.'" Photo by Mark Greenberg

Wetzler: The more damage we do to these people, the more pain and danger we put ourselves in the long run. Most Americans want to know why they're doing something. There's a willingness because of a spirit of volunteerism and youthful enthusiasm to want to serve and to offer themselves in defense of people. So it's critically important not to have the best part of them be used improperly.

Elder: Nobody can really plumb the depths of the suffering and the repercussions, the destabilization of the area, the increased hatred toward us. There is no way to protect against that. To protect ourselves, we need to be a part of a family of nations, but we're bent on doing exactly the opposite.

Wetzler: When I went there a big part of me wanted to lose doubts that there was some good reason for it. My experience was that there was nothing that matched the American idea of destroying villages to save them; it was crazy. What we want do to Iraq and people is we're going to set up an interim government to bring democracy to the Middle East. We're still talking about destroying people to save them. It's just plain nuts. When did one country give freedom to another? I don't know in history where an imposed political system took root. People have to find their own way, like it or not.

Many facts about the Vietnam War - such as regionalizing the war into Cambodia or exaggerating what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin - were either understated or hidden. By reducing the scope and power of the Freedom of Information Act, among other things, the Bush administration has heightened secrecy to another level. What are the ramifications of this policy?

Fichtner: What concerns me is that the administration keeps saying they know Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, but we haven't told the U.N. inspectors and we're not directing them to these weapons. With the CIA on the ground in Iraq, I wouldn't put it past our government to plant something. They'll turn something up to give them a reason to invade.

The Bush administration has renamed the war in the Middle East to the war in Southwest Asia, which sounds like an excuse to extend the war into Korea at some point.

Wetzler: It's just a preparation; it's not a one-shot deal. Bush has made those statements in the past that we're going to be at this for a long time, which brings up the possibility of the draft further down the road. North Korea is a great example of the early fallout of what has happened. North Korea is looking at U.S. policy toward Iraq and saying, 'That's not going to be us.'

Fichtner: They've been lumped with Iraq as the axis of evil and they see our preemptive war on Iraq; they take it as if they're next.

One of the ramifications of the war on terrorism is the erosion of Americans' civil liberties. Where do you see this heading?

Fichtner: I'm surprised at how easily its all been done taken away with so little uproar. We are talking about having a preemptive war and we're just walking into it with so little opposition.

Wetzer: It happened in the past but people understood it made sense and they trusted their leadership. When American rights were curtailed in World War II, they trusted FDR. I don't think I trust George Bush whereas my folks trusted FDR. As veterans, we took an oath to defend and protect the Constitution. And it's ingrained in us, the idea of speaking out. This isn't a case of loose lips sink ships, it's a matter of the democratic right to question what your representatives are doing. I would go further to say it's an obligation of Americans to question when things don't add up.

Define patriotism.

Elder: Patriotism has less and less relevance. When our manufacturing jobs are going outside our country and leaving people scrapping for a living, I don't know what it is, but it's not what it meant a generation ago.

Fichtner: I worry when we have a president who says, 'If you're not for us then you're against us.'

Wetzer: It's jingoism, not patriotism. I don't like it when people insist on using flags for blindfolds. I don't care if people burn it; they bought it, they can burn it - it's a symbol. But when people start elevating it to a sacred object and insisting on using it as a blindfold, that's not patriotism.

What do you think about the strength of the anti-war movement? What is its present and future, considering the U.S. could be at war for a long time?

Fichtner: It's going to depend on a number of U.S. casualties more than anything else. We see pictures of a predator plane that flies without a pilot; we see a building blow up, but you don't see the body parts or the blood. Now that we've gotten pilots out of the planes, we don't have to worry about pilots being shot down.

Wetzler: Few individuals in 1965 and 1966 were talking about it. Here in San Antonio, you've got three vets saying why this next war isn't a good idea. It didn't happen back then. Whether it will make a difference, who knows? In the Martin Luther King march, there will be a contingent of anti-war demonstrators. Martin Luther King himself decided about coming out against the war; that's partly why he's a hero. People said, 'Don't come out against the war, people will red bait you and call you a traitor.' King's response was, 'I've fought against segregation all my life don't ask me to segregate my morality now.'

Some people have the reestablished the idea that Americans - as a matter of birthright - don't have to swallow every turd that's handed to us. I'm not ready to entirely give up on my fellow folks yet. •


To register your opinion about the war in Iraq, call the White House opinion line at 202-456-1111, Monday through Friday, 9am-5pm Eastern Time (8am-4pm Central Time). You will receive a machine message that says, "Thank you for calling the White House opinion line. If you would like to leave a comment for the President, please press 1. Your call is very important to the President." A live operator will ask what comment you would like to leave, such as "I oppose" or "I approve" of the war in Iraq.

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