Listen to the Veterans

special forcesTwelve years ago, at roughly 2:00 a.m. local time on January 17, I was ready to go off guard duty when the call came down from the command post to wake up the platoon leaders ASAP. Not long after, we got the official word: U.S. forces were in contact. Lieutenant Dorr, my platoon leader, came back and briefed us: A hundred tomahawk missiles had been launched, and Special Forces were engaged behind the lines. We didn't need the briefings; all we had to do was look up at the sky to see hundreds of planes heading north for their bombing runs.

Imagine if Ronald Reagan had announced in 1985 that we were going back to Vietnam, and this time we were going to take out those commies. That's how surreal the whole discussion of invading Iraq is, because we have just about as much justification today. At least in 1991, we had the very real fact that Iraq had invaded and occupied its neighbor as justification for the war (forget that the U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie gave Saddam the go-ahead), and the just-war theorists had a lively debate. It was a fight in Congress and a very close vote, a vote that was swung by lies of babies thrown out of incubators concocted in a DC public relations firm.

The result of all this is clear: friends injured on the front lines in Iraq, 12 men in my division killed in action and many more wounded, tens of thousands more who came home sick. Only this week new research was published proving that the chemicals we were exposed to not only caused brain damage but also damaged fertility. This research vindicated thousands of veterans who reported their illnesses 10 years ago only to be told their ailment was in their heads.

Now, 12 years later, it is time for the country to sit up and listen to its veterans -- starting with figures including Generals Anthony Zinni and Norman Schwarzkopf who have consistently urged caution, certified war heroes such as Col. David Hackworth, and the hundreds of veterans who have signed petitions for Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans against the Iraq War.

As veterans who have served in wartime, it is our moral responsibility to ensure that those who serve in uniform today are not sent into battle without just cause. It is our moral responsibility to ensure that they don't needlessly die in a faraway desert for motivations that are unclear. Hold no illusions: Hundreds, possible thousands of Americans will die in the coming war. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will die in the coming war.

All across America, hundreds of thousands of citizens are marching this week, calling out to their government to listen to the people, and in many cases they are joined or led by veterans. No one knows the horrors of war better than someone who has had a friend die in his arms. No one knows the horrors of war better than someone who lives with the memory of having killed another human being.

The tide is turning. Today, the majority of Americans see war against Iraq as unwarranted and unnecessary. But we must keep at it, keep talking, keep putting up signs, until Bush's war on America and Iraq is brought to a halt.

Twelve years ago, among the lights that flew so high over us in the desert night, Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher was shot down over Iraq and never came home. Before the war ground to a halt in March untold thousands more died, at least some of them at my hand. Before the decade was over, another million innocent Iraqi civilians died. That must forever lie on the conscience of Americans, and the world, for letting it happen.

When I was in the Army, they taught me to respect and protect civilians, not to kill them. This war does nothing to protect American lives, but it will do everything to destroy the lives of many thousands of Iraqis and Americans. This war will not protect us from weapons of mass destruction, but it will make it more likely Iraq will try to use them. This war will not liberate the Iraqi people, but it will do everything to ensure they receive a new master, one ruled by corporate profits and oil to fuel more American consumption.

This war isn't worth the life of one American soldier. This week, thousands of American soldiers from my old post, Fort Stewart, are loading up on planes and deploying to Kuwait, to fight a war on our behalf. They go because it is their job, and because it is their mission to protect us.

It is now our mission to protect them.

Charles Sheehan-Miles, a Gulf War veteran and a co-founder of Veterans for Common Sense, is a former president of the National Gulf War Resource Center and author of the novel, "Prayer at Rumayla".

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