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First Person

Some casualties of war happen long afterward

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President Bush and his advisors have made the decision to attack Iraq. To me, this course transcends foolishness and approaches evil. How slow we are to learn from and avoid past mistakes! Take Vietnam, for example, and let's start with my best friend from seventh grade onward.

Bill Gunter and I were scholarship students for six years at a military boarding school outside Baltimore. Charming, witty, athletic, handsome and highly intelligent, Bill was a natural leader and invariably played the top parts in school plays. Even when he knew he'd lose, he fought bullies for bullying smaller boys. All girls and women and most boys and men liked him a lot. He was my roommate, teammate and, as a senior, a fellow cavalry officer. I loved him like a brother. After his college freshman year, Bill took a break in 1967 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He quickly made second lieutenant, the youngest at Ft. Benning and possibly the youngest in the entire army.

Following combat in Vietnam in 1968, Bill finished college, married, fathered two daughters and then, not long afterward, took his own life. What he saw in Southeast Asia--and maybe what he did but could not accept--first haunted and then hounded him into hanging himself.

Later, almost the exact same thing happened with my next-best high school friend, Mike Lewis, except that Mike fathered four children and fired a slug into his chest.

What an ungodly waste!

Bill and Mike's names will never appear on the Wall in Washington with the 58,000-plus brave service men and women listed officially. The Vietnam War, however, which virtually everyone now realizes was a terrible mistake, killed them just the same, along with countless others whose physical and emotional wounds never healed at home. And deeply wounded all their families and friends. And led to several million more casualties we rarely think about in Southeast Asia.

Attacking Iraq will similarly scar Americans and far more Iraqis, including women, children and old people, none of whom have the slightest control over Saddam Hussein or bear the slightest responsibility for his butchery. Whether we admit it or not, and although their religion might differ from ours, these people are almost exactly like us and share our dreams for our families and ourselves.

Killing Hussein in war will require destroying much of Baghdad with unspeakable "collateral damage," possibly comparable to what we inflicted on Japan but without the justification. No U.S. analysts, including the CIA, now consider him a serious threat to any country. What gives us the right to snuff out or ruin so many innocent lives because of our anger at one man and his regime? Is it simply because we can? Is that what America is about? That's not what I've always believed.

At least tens of billions of dollars--and perhaps hundreds of billions--the United States can ill afford in the current slump will be squandered. We will alienate many other countries to varying degrees and totally unnecessarily.

Perhaps worst of all, attacking Iraq is almost guaranteed to backfire. It could unleash a Pandora's box of renewed disease and famine there and spawn new terrorist cells all bent, just as Americans would be, on avenging the harm done to their loved ones. For better or worse, that's just human nature, and these are not people to be taken lightly. Consider how Ariel Sharon's provocative march into East Jerusalem completely upended the peace process and brought death not only to Palestinians, but also to Israelis.

Who are beating the drums of war most loudly? Obviously, once again, as always, they are the chicken hawks, those tough-talking politicians and careerists who never went into battle themselves and who face zero risk of having to do so in the future. Joining them are Christian and Jewish near-fanatics, who ignore the ethical teachings of their own religions and propel the rest of us headlong toward an Armageddon in which everyone will lose.

A wiser, far more moral course would be to show patience and let Hussein's internal enemies or time take care of him, as one or the other inevitably will. That we did not depose Fidel Castro violently is something we can be proud of, because we do not have the blood of thousands of innocent Cubans on our hands. Castro will be gone soon enough.

Obviously we must thwart terrorism to the extent possible, but the single most significant action we can take to protect ourselves and everyone else is not to pump billions down the bureaucratic sinkhole of "homeland security." Instead, the United States needs to work much harder to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That we--and especially the current administration--have done so little so far reveals Americans' ignorance in general and Bush and other U.S. leaders' shameful lack of political courage in particular. Does anyone seriously doubt that this continuing tragedy was central to Sept. 11? Does anyone think the combatants will act responsibly and justly on their own?

We are the most powerful nation the world has every known, and everyone understands that. Let's use that power intelligently and morally so we're not just another Goliath wreaking havoc and awaiting the stones that will inevitably fly back at us. EndBlock

A native of Washington, D.C., David Williamson is a Duke and UNC graduate who has been director of research news at UNC for the past 22 years. He and his wife, Sandy, who teaches Spanish at East Chapel Hill High School, have three daughters and live in Hillsborough. Like countless others, he descends from a long and almost entirely undistinguished line of victims of unnecessary wars. One of his English ancestors was killed by cannon fire in the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea. His Irish great-great grandfather was shot in the head on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg. Mustard gas in French trenches ruined his English grandfather's lungs during the "War to End All Wars."

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