Latest News

Armed forces veterans in Congress asking the toughest questions on Iraq

WASHINGTON—As Congress moves this week toward giving President Bush the authority he seeks to make war on Iraq, some of the toughest questions are coming from lawmakers who once were warriors.

They include veterans such as Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator from Nebraska who volunteered for action in Vietnam, and Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who flew combat missions over Iraq and Kosovo.

As an Army sergeant in 1968, Hagel pulled his brother out of an armored vehicle that had just run over a land mine in Vietnam. Experience like that, he said, "does temper the process" of making decisions about war.

"It pulls you back," Hagel said. "Not a day goes by that I don't think of the 58,000 names on the Vietnam wall," a reference to the war memorial in Washington. "I don't pretend to be the steward of their ghosts. But I have some responsibility for them that I need to pay attention to. I need to pay attention to the next generation."

Their numbers aren't what they used to be in the years just after World War II, but armed forces veterans still make up nearly one-third of the members of Congress. And when the issue is war, their colleagues listen.

"I've found it necessary to use my voice in meetings with the president to slow things down," Kirk said. He is one of nine House of Representatives members in a special group that is working with the president on Iraq policy.

"Everybody is polarized between doing nothing and invading," said Kirk, who served in the Office of Naval Intelligence during the Persian Gulf War. However, he said, weapons inspectors from the United Nations say that "a middle ground is viable."

Kirk said his years in the military make him reluctant to go to war, which he described as "an incredibly imprecise and blunt instrument." But, he said, "unless you give (Secretary of State) Colin Powell this authority, his chances of getting a U.N. resolution are zero."

The views of veterans will not alter Bush's determination to use force, if necessary, to get Saddam Hussein to disarm. But many lawmaker-war vets believe they have influenced the president to stress, as he has lately, that force is a last resort. They say their reservations helped narrow the scope of the resolution on going to war and forced the administration to pay more heed to the long-term consequences of war.

"Sometimes I find that people who are least reticent to go to war are the ones who never served in the military or saw action," said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., a former Navy flight officer who flew surveillance missions along the Vietnam coast. "Those members who served in World War II or Korea or Vietnam know that a lot of Americans can die in wars. We get lulled into a false sense of security with the Persian Gulf War and the fight in Afghanistan over the last year."

Hagel has been one of the most outspoken Republican skeptics about Bush's bellicosity, and he has worked hard, in public and behind the scenes, to temper the president's approach. The legislative language authorizing Bush to wage war has been moderated somewhat in light of objections such as Hagel's, and now, he says,

"I think the resolution itself is probably a good balance."

Bush himself flew fighter jets in training with the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era, but did not serve overseas.

Though Bush will win overwhelmingly in Congress this week or next, the administration refuses to take any vote for granted. On Tuesday Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell attended the Senate Republicans' weekly luncheon.

In Tennessee, where he was campaigning for a Republican candidate for governor, Bush gave assurances that he would not go to war impetuously.

"Committing our military into harm's way is my last choice," Bush said. "I talk about military options as the last option, not the first option, because I understand the consequences.

"But I want you to know that if we have to commit our military—and we may not have to, but if we have to—then we'll have the best plans. The full force and fury of the United States military will be unleashed. And make no mistake about it, we will prevail."

Not every lawmaker with military service is reluctant to use force in Iraq.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five and a half years as a Vietnamese prisoner of war and emerged to acclaim as a hero, is one of the most forceful voices in Congress for giving Bush war powers.

McCain thinks a war with Iraq would be short, that Saddam would lose the support of his military officers and that U.S. allies would help rebuild the country.

"The shadow of Vietnam does not fall over all of my decisions," McCain said. "It has never been in my life a defining moment or influence."

McCain was Bush's rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, but now his friend Hagel calls him "the White House poster boy."

In the House, warrior-lawmaker Rep. Steve Buyer, R.-Ind., is gung-ho. He wore an Army combat uniform in the Saudi desert in 1991 when Congress authorized former President George Bush to wage war on Iraq. Now, Buyer is co-sponsoring the resolution that would permit that President Bush's son to make war against the same enemy.

"It was far easier to have been ordered to go to war than to vote that someone else should go in my place," Buyer said.

Buyer, who has served in the Army or the Army Reserves since 1980, said he couldn't imagine how he would feel had he not served in combat, or exactly how his service influenced him today. He just knows it does.

"I cannot separate myself from my war experience," he said. "The only thing

I left in the gulf was my innocence. I don't remember that person I was before I went."


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ