A Matter of Honor

Vets call on the military's top brass not to fight

The e-mails call them pussies and cowards, say they probably never fought anybody.

Woody Powell, executive director of Veterans for Peace, sips coffee as thick as delta silt and reads each message. His fingers curve above the keyboard; tempted, he restrains himself.

A national organization headquartered in St. Louis, VFP has on its rolls two members who received the Medal of Honor, dozens who received Silver Stars and Bronze Stars, hundreds who were awarded the Purple Heart.

VFP treasurer Lincoln Grahlfs served as a first-class petty officer in the Navy during World War II and navigated a seagoing tug on rescue missions in the Pacific. When three kamikaze pilots hit a destroyer in Okinawa and killed a third of the crew, his tug towed the wounded ship 7,000 miles -- through a typhoon -- to San Francisco Bay.

Ken Mayers, who started VFP's Santa Fe chapter, is a retired major in the Marine Corps Reserve. He spent 1958-66 on active duty, leading a platoon in an infantry battalion, commanding a guard company at the National Security Agency and commanding a communications intelligence company on Okinawa.

Powell turned eighteen the day before the Korean War started, and he enlisted right away. He wound up an Air Force policeman at a base near Taegu, South Korea, doing night patrols. Once, he got trapped alone in a firefight with North Korean soldiers who were trying to raid a rocket shed. "All I had was a .45 and lots of ammunition," he says. "I held them at bay for two hours, firing at their muzzle flashes and running, until the sun came up and they disappeared."

Like other VFP members, these three are proud to have served their country -- and ashamed of their current government.

"We're not necessarily pacifists," emphasizes Powell. "We're not Gandhis. We're just ex-GIs with some understanding of the real costs of war. Iraq, like Yugoslavia, was formed out of disparate ethnic groups and held together by a strong autocratic central government. Once that personality is gone, it won't be stable.

David Cline, national president of the veterans' group, sent an open letter this month to fifteen American generals and admirals, calling war against Iraq a "violation of the Charter of the United Nations and customary international law" that would discredit all who served their country. Cline emphasized that the vets "are not apologists for Saddam Hussein" but see this as an unnecessary war of aggression. "The threat which permits the use of force is somewhat elastic," he conceded, "but it must be an immediate, specific threat to U.S. national security and not a general threat to the Gulf region or a possible future threat."

Grahlfs is appalled by the way the Bush administration is scrapping international treaties; Mayers says the soldiers are simply being used and hopes they have the courage to follow their consciences and not the administration's orders.

President George W. Bush urged the same courage on Iraqi soldiers when he spoke in St. Louis last month, promising to "persecute" Iraqi generals for war crimes if they used chemical and biological weapons to defend themselves.

A former U.S. Marine, Jerry Genesio, founded VFP in 1985 as a protest against his country's violent intervention in the affairs of other nations. Membership swelled during the Gulf War but had dropped to 500 by 2001. On September 9 of that year, Powell took over as executive director. He was unpacking boxes in the new St. Louis headquarters -- a tiny set of offices in the basement of the World Community Center on Skinker Boulevard -- when the World Trade Center fell.

The new phone line started ringing and has never stopped. On October 9, the New York Timesran, as a full-page ad, a letter from a VFP member to President Bush.

"I am a former U.S. Marine sergeant who served his country well and was honorably discharged in 1970," Greg Nees began. He implored the president not to take more innocent lives but to instead show the world that the US is "a civilized country that can be trusted to follow the law."

Sixteen months after that letter ran, VFP membership has increased fivefold to more than 2,500 and is climbing by about 100 vets a week. Powell takes calls from veterans saying, "We are losing our country; we are losing our democracy." Some are pretty direct: "We've got a crazy administration."

He also takes calls from current soldiers and reservists who ask, "How can I avoid killing people? How can I get out? How can I become a conscientious objector?" He says the sheer volume of opposition to this war, even within the military community, is breaking precedent.

Mayers notes that "retired Marine Corps generals have come out against this war. And look at Wesley Clark ..." The former NATO supreme commander directed the 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo without hesitation. He's calling the campaign against Iraq "elective surgery," a distraction from the greater danger of North Korea and the need for domestic defense, a shift to colonialism and a diplomatic bungle.

U.S. soldiers and soldiers' parents have filed a federal lawsuit in Boston, challenging the president's authority to invade Iraq without a congressional declaration of war. Three Vietnam vets have begun a new Web site, Veterans Against the Iraq War (www.vaiw.org). Beneath the seals of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, they posted an anti-war petition that already bears the names of 1,482 veterans and family members. And even some CIA veterans have gone dovish, warning that war against Iraq will "ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists," increasing the threat exponentially.

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