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WWII Generation Asks What This War Would Be Good For

January 18, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — They survived the Depression and World War II, lived through Vietnam and Watergate, witnessed the Iranian hostage crisis, the Persian Gulf War and the Internet boom and bust. Shocked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they saw terror replayed in the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Now, members of the World War II generation are worried about a possible war in Iraq. Of all the generations studied by pollsters, these Americans -- now in their 70s, 80s and 90s -- are showing the most resistance to an invasion in Iraq in surveys of American opinion.

Members of the World War II generation interviewed for this story do not shrink from war. They almost universally supported the U.S. campaign to rout the Taliban from Afghanistan, and most would endorse further efforts to defend the United States against terrorism. Some wish the United States had been more aggressive earlier with North Korea, and one even suggested going to war against Saudi Arabia.

Instead, concerns center on the view of some that Washington has not made its case. Many are unconvinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is harnessing weapons of mass destruction, and they are dubious about invading his country before he has attacked the United States. Others are suspicious that President Bush and his war cabinet are motivated by a desire to avenge the first President Bush's mistakes or to capture a ready supply of oil.

Being patriotic, however, they await an explanation -- beyond oil or revenge -- that will satisfy their memories of fighting what they view as the Last Great War. "Now don't paint me as un-American," said Fred Thomas, 90, a retired telephone executive in Opelika, Ala., who commanded an artillery battery of the 79th Infantry Division in Europe. "I'm a solid, hard-rock American. I've been a Republican since 1934. I just don't like fighting the kind of war that I can't put my fingers on. With the Germans, you could depend on what they were going to do, but these people fight different."

Gibson Reynolds, a 78-year-old retired aerospace engineer from Tuxedo, N.Y., echoed the point. A Signal corpsman during World War II, he said he has "always been very pro-American, it's part of the history of being at war." But he sees no evidence so far that merits going to war in Iraq. "I'm willing to be convinced either way," he said. "But if there's some darned good reason for going to war, I haven't seen it yet. There was a reason for going into Afghanistan. I was in favor of that. There was a reason for going into Kuwait. I was in favor of that. In this present situation, I have not been given enough information to know."

The Rev. Bill Berglund, 82, was a Marine who served, proudly, in World War II and Korea. He entered the seminary in 1969 at age 49. He is not, however, a pacifist. Berglund said he would have fought in Afghanistan too, "if I weren't so old and feeble," and if they had let him on the battlefield in his golf cart. And he has not ruled out going to war with Saudi Arabia. "They financed 9/11, and their young men flew the planes," he said.

But ask Berglund, who lives in a retirement community in Elizabethtown, Pa., about Iraq, and he all but bristles. "I am dead set against it," he said. "It is a needless exercise of power by a certain group of people in Washington."

In a Los Angeles Times Poll last month, support for sending U.S. ground troops to Iraq was 58% among all 1,305 respondents compared with 35% among the World War II generation. A poll of 4,469 Americans by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in the fall indicated that 60% of Americans favored taking action in Iraq to end Hussein's regime, but that only 41% of participants 75 and older supported such action.

The margin of error for The Times survey was plus or minus 3 percentage points; it was 2 percentage points in the Pew poll.

Women in every generation are more opposed to war than men, and in the senior generation, female support was only 35% in the Pew poll. But even among men, many of whom served in World War II, support was sharply lower among the World War II generation. Men in Generation X (ages 26 to 37) registered a whopping 71% support for forcing out Saddam Hussein in the Pew survey. But only 53% of the male participants 75 years old and older said they supported U.S. military action in Iraq.

Robert H. Bates turned 92 on Tuesday. A mountain climber, he was a consultant to the 10th Mountain Division when it was founded in World War II. The co-author of "K2-The Savage Mountain," Bates lives now in Exeter, N.H., with his wife, Gail.

"If they prove it, I'm all for it," he said. "Saddam Hussein is very bad for the world, but there has to be much more evidence out there. It would be very bad for America to go it alone."

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