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Small voices can raise a mighty chorus

January 18, 2003

    I have started and stopped this column a dozen times over the past week.

    Like every other American with a mind to think, a heart to feel, I am scared for our beloved country and the world. Like millions of others, I have a deep sense of foreboding as our elected leaders once again involve us all in the horrors of war. Not since Vietnam have we felt so helpless in the face of acts by our government that we felt were immoral and just plain wrong from every practical standpoint.

    One recent afternoon, I felt deeply guilty for walking on by four anti-war demonstrators holding up their signs in front of the Post Office. I asked myself, “what good will that do?” One feels so helpless, so small in the face of such awesome power being so recklessly cast about. What can we do? What can I do? The ocean is so wide and my boat is so small.

    In these troubled times, we are haunted by Edmund Burke’s famous lines: “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

    Before I went to Vietnam as a UPI correspondent, arriving the night the Tet Offensive began in 1968, I had never participated in an anti-war demonstration or any other kind of demonstration, for that matter. I hid behind the “objective” shield of being in the news business. But, it didn’t take long for me to lose all that as I faced the real obscenity of war up close as I covered the Tet fighting in Saigon and Danang, the battle for Hue, the siege at Khe Sanh.

    I do not think Vietnam was the aberration in the history of war some historians try to make it. It was just that the young photographers and reporters covering this particular war suddenly stripped away all the glamour and pageantry and exposed this hideously violent side of human nature for what it is. From a historical standpoint, Vietnam made as much sense as most other wars. The old photographers in World War II had a code that forbade them from showing our soldiers in fear or the faces of death, the younger ones in Vietnam knew this was the story.

    Whatever the politics that causes war, the thing itself comes down to people killing each other. If you were raised on the Holy Bible as I was, this is immoral, evil, wrong. The commandment “thou shalt not kill” is not conditional. It does not say, killing is wrong some of the time but okay if it’s government policy.

    I had not marched for anything before I went to Vietnam. After I came back, I marched in every major anti-war rally in New York and Washington, D.C. In one especially dangerous march on Washington, a group of friends and I stayed in the house of an old UNC classmate, Peter Harkness. Peter was in the National Guard and was, however reluctantly, out there in uniform ostensibly opposed to what we were doing. But, not really. On both sides of the lines, we were all the same age, many of us friends. We all wanted peace by that time. Nobody could rationalize the senseless slaughter going on in Vietnam—a country that posed no threat whatsoever to the peace and tranquility of America.

    Now, it seems, we have forgotten all the important lessons we learned from our bitter Vietnam experience. George Bush is preparing for war as if it were the Yale-Harvard football game—which, of course, was as close as he and most of his chickenhawk advisers ever got to real war. In one short year, he has squandered the goodwill of the world toward America and, as in the Vietnam period, turned us into a bullying hated nation. The “Yanqui, go home” signs are multiplying daily. Ever since the Gulf War, we have successfully contained Iraq through no-fly zones, embargoes and diplomacy. After weeks of expert weapons inspection, there is still no evidence that Iraq poses any more of a threat to our national security than Vietnam did in the 1960s.

    Last Sunday night, tears came to my eyes; a chill ran up and down my spine.

    Two interviews on television brought back to me all the emotions from the late 1960s. A Vietnam veteran in Michigan was asked why he was demonstrating against the fast-approaching war in Iraq. “Because,” he said, “if you feel something is dangerously wrong, then you have an obligation to speak out about it.”

    Meanwhile, Tom Brokaw sat interviewing a bright young American in uniform as he prepared to set off to fight the war the older veteran was protesting. Brokaw assumed that with all the excellent training the young man described, he would be anxious to put it to use in actual warfare. But, “NO,” the young man said emphatically. He was not that excited about going to war. Brokaw muttered something suggesting the young man might not like “getting shot at.”

    “I don’t want to shoot at them either,” said this proud American fighting man. “There’s nothing good about taking a human life.”

    What an extraordinary country we live in that would produce such articulate young spokesmen. How obscene that our government would risk the holocaust of World War III and put them and the rest of the world in harm’s way. As in the Nixon years, we are once again faced with a White House that seems totally out of touch with the citizens of this country. Once again, one feels so small, so helpless. It is good to remember that the peace movement of the 1960s also began slowly, with just a few people standing on street corners and the post offices. But the numbers grew slowly but surely as the true horror of war sank in. Hundreds, then thousands, then millions of those small voices like yours and mine raised a mighty chorus that brought an end to the war in Vietnam.