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Today's Veteran Is No Automatic Cold Warrior : Protest: If hostilities erupt in the gulf, vets are likely to be more prominent in the domestic opposition than at the outset of any previous U.S. war.

December 23, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times

MARSHALL, MINN. — On a cold December night, in the forgiving stillness of southwestern Minnesota, the past tingles like an old wound for the 350 men and women who have gathered in the high school auditorium.

From houses down the street and farms an hour away, they have come to a town meeting called by Sen.-elect Paul Wellstone to air their feelings about the threat of war in the Persian Gulf. But it is the fetid memory of Vietnam that fills the throat of James Sanden and Lloyd Ricker and Jim Hubley when they take their turns to speak.

For each of these Vietnam veterans, and the others who follow them to the microphone, the gulf crisis has made the old war vivid again. Vietnam lingers in the room, as boundless and inscrutable as fog, awaiting, after all these years, someone to extract its meaning in time to prevent its recurrence.

Each man tries.

To Sanden, the lesson is skepticism: He has heard President Bush's promise that a war with Iraq would not be a long one, like Vietnam, and he remembers the promises of Robert M. McNamara and Lyndon B. Johnson. "Every politician promises a short war before they begin," he says.

To Ricker, it is unity behind the President and the imperative to stand firm behind the troops when the order to fight has been given: "I'm all for these public meetings, but let's not downgrade our President or our government."

To Hubley, it is shared sacrifice: The best way to avoid war in the gulf, he tells Wellstone, "would be to bring back the draft. Everybody's got to pay the price . . . . If we do that, the movers and shakers will start moving and shaking and we won't go in . . . . "

This diversity of opinion is at once unsurprising and remarkable. Unsurprising because the 15 years since the last Americans fled from the embassy roof in Saigon have yielded no final answers to the questions that trailed behind them. And yet these discordant voices are remarkable, too, for they signal that if hostilities erupt in the gulf, military veterans are likely to be more prominent in the domestic opposition than at the outset of any previous U.S. war.

"There is a degree of dissent from veterans now that eclipses anything that you've seen in the past," said Robert Dallek, a professor of history at the UCLA who has studied foreign-policy decision-making.

Protest from veterans on national-security questions is not unprecedented. Disillusioned World War I vets joined the unlikely alliance of pacifists, progressives and nativists in the 1930s' isolationist movement.

But veterans have more typically served as a critical buttress for prevailing national-security policy: In the early stages of the Vietnam War, for example, the handful of World War II and Korean veterans who spoke out against the buildup were dwarfed by the veterans' organizations supporting it. It was not until the soldiers from Vietnam themselves began to return home through the late 1960s that veterans meaningfully enlisted in the anti-war movement.

That legacy of dissent has added a new dimension to the current debate over the gulf. Already, Vietnam veterans have moved into the front ranks of those questioning the President's policy.

This is most visible in the political arena, where the President's most prominent Democratic critics include several Vietnam veterans: Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner.

Kerrey, the earliest and perhaps most vocal Senate opponent of military escalation in the gulf, is skeptical of the Administration's assertions and assurances precisely because of his experience in Vietnam. "President Bush doesn't have a memory of having gone to a war where your politicians lied to you," he says. "I have a memory of having gone to a war where the politicians lied."

Striking as such sentiments are, the impact of Vietnam veterans may be more profound on local debates, such as those in Marshall, than in Congress, where only a few dozen members served in Southeast Asia. In Marshall, the room seemed to focus more sharply whenever a speaker announced he was a Vietnam veteran.

Even traditional veterans' groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States have been affected. Today, nearly one-third of the VFW's members are Vietnam veterans, and their presence has unsettled even this pillar of support for the Pentagon.

"There's a lot more open debate and different points of view within our organization than before Vietnam because now we have groups of veterans . . . that have had totally different experiences," says Larry W. Rivers, executive director of the VFW's Washington office and a Vietnam veteran.

All this dissension operates within limits: The VFW has endorsed Bush's moves to this point, and it's difficult to imagine the group opposing offensive action should the President pursue it.

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