"I Am Concerned"
By Paul Demko and Britt Robson
Now that the invasion of Iraq has begun, all of us have a new cache of emotions to go with our opinions. Since veterans of military service have played such a vocal role in both supporting and--to a surprising degree--opposing this war, it seemed an appropriate time to visit the vfw and American Legion Posts around the Twin Cities and talk to some of the vets there.
Many of the people we talked to declined to have their opinions published. Some others preferred to give only their first names. What follows is a sample of what we heard during this thoroughly unscientific survey, conducted from last Wednesday night, an hour after President Bush announced the onset of war, to last Saturday afternoon. For a complete transcript of all the interviews excerpted here, go to citypages.com.
Saturday afternoon, VFW Post 295, South St. Paul. Dan Smoot, a 51-year-old Vietnam vet, is wearing a red, white, and blue VFW baseball cap and red, white, and blue jacket.
Smoot: I'm very supportive of our troops. I'm supportive of the president and what he's doing. I do have reservations. The United States has never been an aggressive country. It used to be always we were attacked first. This is the first. I am concerned. Anybody who's been at war don't like war. Sometimes it has to be done. In this case I do agree with the president that it needs to be done.
CP: The president has tried to tie Iraq to 9/11. Do you think he's made that case?
Smoot: Absolutely not. The thing is, every one of those terrorists was from Saudi Arabia. It's like, Hello, wait a minute. He may be indirectly tied. I'm sure he may be backing it. I have no doubt in that. I think the UN at this point in time is a joke. They're scared to make a decision. I think there's a lot of political and monetary interference with it.
It's fine to be against the war. I'm against the war. But now that we're there, support your president, support your government, and support your troops. All we're doing is a job that we're told to do by our commander in chief. Bottom line, when a person joins the military they take an oath. Once you take that oath you're bound by it. I don't know how else to put it.
I have no doubt that Iraq will not be the end. I have no doubt, because they are keeping it tied with terrorism. There will be other countries. We're gonna have to go in and we're gonna have to weed them out. This is a whole different world. This might wake up the other countries and they'll weed out the terrorists in their own countries, knowing that if they don't we're coming after them. You awake the sleeping lion. Japan did it in World War II. Well, it just happened again. And here we come.
Wednesday night, VFW Post 230 in Columbia Heights. Mark, a U.S. Marine for eight years during the 1990s, and Todd, who served in the Army from 1988-98, are sharing pizza and paperwork.
Todd: We need to get rid of the guy. We need to get rid of the whole regime is what we need to do. Our biggest discussion was the anti-American, politically correct rhetoric that is being flashed around here. I don't know. I feel passionately about it. He does. He is a Marine and I'm a 10-year Army vet; I spent a year in the Balkans. And we both sacrificed all that time for our country and to hear people spouting the shit coming out of their mouths, it just infuriates both of us.
We're so afraid we're going to offend someone by our opinions. "You better not voice your opinion on closing our borders and not having all these immigrants come in, because you might offend somebody." Well, that's bullshit!
Mark: If you want to talk honestly about what my opinion is, people come into this country and their visa expires, once your visa expires, goodbye. I don't care if you are in the middle class or working in a brand-new job. Goodbye.
These protesters don't have enough information.
Todd: They have been listening to one side of it. This whole weapons of mass destruction? These people don't understand how nasty this shit is. We're talking about fifty thousand people dead in thirty seconds. I mean it will kill you that goddamn quick.
CP: Will this war bring more terrorists to America?
Todd: I think so.
Mark: Highly likely. I think what you are going to see in America, especially where I've come from and especially what I know in northern Minnesota, there are individuals in these communities and cities that will stand up with law enforcement and root these people out, whether it means doing it nicely or doing it physically. But it is going to be done.
Todd: It has got to be done.
CP: But how do you distinguish terrorists from totally innocent Muslims?
Todd: You can't be proactive in this; you've got to be reactive. You can't racial-profile, you've got to react to the situation. Otherwise you are talking about the internment camps again, you know, and everybody would be pissed off about that. But look what it did for the country.
Mark: It did some good.
Todd: How many cells did it take out? How many spies did it take out? We had spies in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was hit.
Mark: If you do not take care of Saddam and bin Laden we will be like Israel. We will have car bombings. Even now, we might be postponing it for a little while, but it will happen. I honestly think the world will change.
Todd: We were just talking about re-enlisting.
Mark: I'd say there's an 80-40 chance right now.
Todd: It's hard to sit on the sidelines.
Mark: Would I do it again? To keep freedom for my friends to worship God and go to school and to have my daughter do whatever she wants to do? Then so be it. To do it for my nephews and nieces? So be it.
Todd: In Vietnam the press was bringing back all these pictures of Vietnam and American soldiers, 18 years old, lying in a ditch with their guts hanging out. They say that spurred an anti-war movement. What we are facing now is some more bullshit like what happened in the '60s. People are going to see pictures of some kid with his guts hanging out. They're going to be up in arms about that. But what do you think this whole thing is about?
Friday night, Westphal American Legion Post 251 in Robbinsdale. With approximately 2,000 members, Westphal is the second-largest Legion post in Minnesota. The post chaplain is Stan McClure, who served in the Navy from 1961-66.
McClure: First, keep in mind everybody here supports our servicemen and women. That's without question. But I don't think this is the right thing to do for the United States. I think we are putting ourselves in a big box. I have not seen evidence that what they are saying they are trying to do is true, with the weapons of mass destruction and so forth.
I think that the enemy is Al Qaeda, bin Laden--and they don't even talk about these guys anymore. They switched to Iraq, which is no contest between Iraq and the United States. I feel badly for the people of Iraq, and for the people of the United States. Now we are going to be subject to terrorism. For the first time, I think a lot of us in America are going to witness what other people in other countries have witnessed. You know? Not being secure for the first time. And that's unfortunate.
I don't think that the reasoning for [this war]--we'll go it alone because we're the biggest--is the right attitude. We belong to the United Nations for a reason. And just because they don't go along with us, we shouldn't say, "Well, you're irrelevant and we'll go along without you." That is showing disrespect to the rest of the countries and that is not good.
[Seeing the war start] I'm probably sad more than anything. We are living in a fear that is based on one incident, 9/11. And that's not justification to have the fear that we have, compared to the Palestinians, the Israelis, other people around the world. I can't see the rest of the Arab world sitting back and allowing the United States to bully the rest of the world. Germany tried it, and a coalition had to shut them down. The Japanese tried it, a coalition had to shut them down. Go back to the Romans; every time a country got that powerful, the rest of the world has to step in. I'd hate to lose what we've got.
CP: What about the argument that Saddam Hussein had to be taken out because he was funding the terrorists and abusing his own people?
McClure: Ah, if I remember, China ran over their kids with tanks in Tiananmen Square. That was abuse in front of the world. We did nothing. If he had threatened the United States, if there was a direct connection between him and bin Laden, then it would have been okay to do this. But they've never shown that connection.
Like I said, we all support the troops. That is beyond question, because that is us. But they don't see the connection for the war. They know that there are times when they have to go to war. But you go to war to defend yourself, not to beat up on somebody who is defenseless. If you recall the first time we went into Iraq, they had just come off a 10-year war with Iran that we funded. All their weapons of mass destruction, we sold them and taught them how to use. That's hypocritical. And they know that. At the same time, we've got to be careful because people call you unpatriotic if you question what the administration is doing. It is not unpatriotic to question it.
Friday night, Charles R. Knabel VFW Post 494 in Crystal. Tim Feeney, the pianist in the house band and a former Marine, has a few moments to talk between sets.
Feeney: I was in the Marines for three years, nine months, 27 days, and 11 hours. I was stationed in North Carolina and Okinawa, and served at the tail end of the Korean War. We've had four generations of USMC. My grandson is over in Kuwait right now, over there in Special Forces.
What is going on right now, you are going to have some innocent people [hurt]. It is not our fault and it is not Bush's fault by any means. It is because that creep over there put those innocent people in a position to be harmed. To me, that guy is like the devil himself. He was warned and warned and warned and warned. And finally it got to the point where push came to shove. It's an honest war. We told him exactly what we were going to do if he didn't change his ways and continued executing and starving his own people.
CP: Do you trust that Bush knows what he is doing?
Feeney: Yup. Because Bush is the final figurehead. He is the most powerful person in the world. But anyone who has been in the service knows that he has a multitude of very great minds behind him. And it is an education process for him too. He does not solely control. There are too many very great minds out there that are sitting at the helm with him. You and I don't even know the direct plan and if we did, that would be wrong. You don't let the foe find out what you are going to do.
What we are doing over there now, in my personal estimation, is ridding that poor country of all the bad guys. Bring the good guys in there. We'll bring in--if it's dirt, we'll bring in a shipload of dirt. Bring in a shipload of money. Bring in a shipload of people to teach them how to use that soil. And bring in a shipload of hope and medicine. Fill the stomachs of all the people there, the guys and all their families. Put a roof over their heads. To me, that has to happen.
Saturday afternoon, back at VFW Post 251 in Columbia Heights. Jim Foley, who served in the South Pacific during World War II, is eating a plate of spaghetti alongside two other World War II vets who refused to give their names. "They want to be stealth bombers," Foley jokes.
Foley: I think they have to have more proof than what they've got to go to war. I saw Rumsfeld on TV this morning; now 72 hours into war they haven't found one weapon that these guys described Iraq having in their presentation to the UN. I think our government has been lying to us like they did in Vietnam and I don't think we should have ever gone to war until we had given these guys a chance to inspect the country.
CP: If the U.N. had decided to go to war--
Foley: I would have went for it.
CP: Do you think this will increase terrorism or reduce terrorism in this country?
Foley: It's gotta increase it. We've got more damn enemies around the world now than we've ever had. When you've got a president who talks to a head of state and says, "Either you're with me or you're against me," that's like two little kids out on the playground.
Stealth Bomber One: One thing I think they should do is take all these protesters that are burning flags and send them out so they can be with France.
Stealth Bomber 2: Saddam said he didn't have any scud missiles, but our troops are blowing them out of the sky right now.
Foley: But they don't know if these were some that the inspectors had asked be destroyed.
SB2: No. Saddam said they didn't have any.
Foley: Today when a reporter asked Tommy Franks, 'Have you found any weapons of mass destruction?' Tommy Franks says, 'No, but we're sure we're gonna find them.' He said, 'We're only 72 hours into the country but we're sure we're gonna find them.' Well, they haven't found any yet.
SB2: Soldiers aren't looking for weapons, they're looking for the enemy. They'll find them. They were shooting scuds off.
CP: Is the fact that this war is preemptive and not defensive, does that matter to you?
Foley: Not really. But I think what we did, we made a lot of enemies throughout the world. Christ, we've got Canada and Mexico, our two closest neighbors, both aren't joining with us.
There is something goofy going on. Did you see what the France guy said yesterday? He said the United States isn't going to redevelop Iraq alone. Evidently it is about oil. With France wanting to get in there now and help redo the country, it is evidently about this goddamn oil, which is what some people have said all along. Maybe it is. I don't know.
CP: The tough part will be rebuilding Iraq afterwards, won't it?
Foley: We're gonna feed the children over there, we're gonna build schools for them. Bush came out the other day and said we're gonna educate these kids. But he cuts the goddamn budget in this country to educate our kids. Cuts the food program for our kids. But he's going over there to educate those kids. It don't make sense. I can't figure it out.
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