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Let's really support our soldiers

by Clare Hanrahan

"The time for dissent is passed once the war is declared," one Asheville, NC resident wrote in a recent letter to the editor of a local publication, echoing the sentiments of many who fear for the lives of their loved ones in this coming war.

"Don't undermine the morale of our troops now that they're deployed," is another caution, skillfully manipulated by a government determined to go to war despite calls by millions of mainstream people worldwide for restraint, diplomacy and genuine efforts to avoid another barbaric assault on the people of Iraq.

This war is wrong. It is an immoral and illegal act of terror. It will continue to be wrong throughout its bloody course. The men and women in the US military armed with the most terrible weapons ever devised, and deployed to toxic battlefields are now awaiting orders to unleash hellfire on a country and a people already devastated and starved. Throughout Western North Carolina, this military call-up has torn asunder family after family. Already the human collateral damage of past wars and of the ongoing domestic war on the poor fills our streets, while funds for health care, housing, education and transportation are cut to the bone.

If this war continues, many of our sons and daughters, husbands and fathers in the military will be returned to us only as ashes (a measure proposed by Pentagon war planners to limit contamination from soldiers exposed to anthrax, smallpox or other toxins), and we may never even hear about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people most of them noncombatants who will also die.

Those who have called a "Support Our Soldiers" rally in Asheville attempt to equate dissent with disrespect for the men and women who have chosen the military path. This is deceitful, divisive and dangerous. Many among the nearly 2,000 people who gathered in Asheville on Feb. 15 to say no to this war are veterans; others have lost loved ones in previous conflicts and would not wish this grief on any other family. We oppose this war because it is wrong and unnecessary. We oppose this war because it violates the very Constitution our soldiers have sworn to uphold. We oppose this war because we fear our government's unchecked power far more than we fear the dangerous dictator in Iraq. We oppose this war because we believe that the best way to support our soldiers is to refuse to consent to the wanton exploitation of their noble impulse, and the reckless abuse of their precious lives.

When I was a teenager in Memphis, "Back our Boys in Vietnam" was the only bumper sticker my parents ever allowed on our family car. This was after my older brother, Tommy, joined the Marines just out of high school. In solidarity, my sister Eileen and I joined the USO. We wanted to show our support and express our patriotic sentiments. We wanted to do what was right in a time of war, as we believed our brave brother had done when called on by his country. I was naive, blindly patriotic, and deeply concerned for my family and friends in the military. I would have waved the flag in any "Support our Soldiers" rally.

As a USO volunteer, I met hundreds of young men in transit to Vietnam. Most were too young to vote; too young to drink in the nightclubs; too young, really, to even know why they were drafted to fight, kill and die in Vietnam. Some of them were African-American soldiers, many from Northern cities; even on their way to war, they still had to contend with the ugly racism rampant in Memphis, my hometown.

Brother Tommy made it home a few days before Christmas, 1967. He was wounded and broken in ways only the years would fully reveal. At the VA hospital, I visited with other casualties of that war. Many of these men had no family nearby, so they came to our home on weekends some on crutches, some missing limbs or with wounds still bandaged. Some just sat on the porch and stared out into space.

It wasn't long before Tommy's twin, Danny, stepped forward. He was in the recruiters' bag before my parents could intervene. "There was nothing I could do to stop him," my mother lamented. I stood with her the day he left, and I joined her at a local Marine Corps Mothers' Club gathering where women offered one another support as their not-quite-grown sons fought and died in Southeast Asia. One after another, my fine young brothers bright, handsome and brave went off to war. One after another, they returned wounded, poisoned and broken. And one after another, they died carrying to their early graves the memories of that war and the Agent Orange toxins that coursed through their systems. Their names were never etched on that Wailing Wall in Washington, DC Nor were the names of their brothers in arms whose suicides exceed the number of combat deaths, or the names of the many others who still suffer from the delayed stress of that criminal war.

These veterans, forgotten by their country, are joined now by the many spent-and-discarded soldiers from the first Bush's Gulf War soldiers still seeking the acknowledgment and treatment of their war-induced illnesses while the son of a Bush who called them to war cuts funding for the veterans' hospitals. Is this what we mean by "Support our Troops"? I will not stand by and wave a flag as this next generation marches off to war.

I will not repeat trite platitudes as these men and women are used up and then abandoned by a US government that has broken faith with its noble principles, that fails to protect its citizens a US regime that threatens the world with the use of first-strike nuclear weapons.

This President who calls for endless war never stood in battle, never struggled for a livelihood, never learned the lessons of the Christianity he claims nor of the God he invokes in his power-hungry quest for domination and control. It is he and the other politicians, generals and armchair warriors who truly undermine the safety and security of our men and women in the military and who constitute the biggest threat to peace in this world.

Last month, I shared a Greyhound journey with some young marines who boarded the bus in Knoxville. They were on their way to Camp Lejeune, and as the night deepened and the bus rolled on through the mountains, I listened to their conversations. They talked about the families they'd left behind, about the pay packet that didn't quite cover their expenses, about their girlfriends and the buddies they'd made in boot camp. One wore a new jacket boldly embroidered with the slogan, "Trained to fight, learned to kill, ready to die, but never will." They were not sophisticated men, just country boys setting off on heroes' journeys cocky and sure of themselves, and full of the rhetoric instilled by their military indoctrination. Listening to them, I understood my mother's lament: There was nothing I could do to stop them. They could have been the two brothers whose loss I still grieve.

I will continue to voice my opposition to this war it is my moral and civic duty. And I will continue to support our soldiers with my ongoing, outspoken, risk-taking refusal to cooperate with this government in yet another criminal war.


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