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Being there: lessons from a war zone

09/19/02 12:00AM By Jim Luken
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(Host) Commentator Jim Luken says that spending even a short time in a war zone challenges the notion that war is an acceptable means of resolving conflict.

(Luken) On a recent Sunday morning, driving through the village of Hardwick, I noticed a solitary man standing with a large cardboard sign at the edge of the sidewalk. The sign read: "Stop the War in Iraq." I pulled over to thank the young man for standing his lonely vigil for peace.

We chatted for several minutes about the impending war. Dozens of cars streamed past the man and his sign as we talked. Several times, voices shouted obscenities at us: "Bomb those (expletive-deleted) Iraqis!" Surely others among those passersby were opposed to a provocative U.S. war on Iraq. But no one shouted any encouragement. No doubt the majority of those who drove by held no strong opinion on the issue either way.

As usual, this war will happen "over there." To "them." The enemy. Whatever an enemy is these days. Attacking Iraq might cause a few isolated terrorist incidents on US soil. But the administration has assured us those will happen anyway. One other thing is certain: Saddam cannot retaliate in kind. His missiles cannot reach our cities. We are basically safe. And so we comfort ourselves. And rationalize the irrational.

This, I think, is part of the problem. Most U.S. citizens share something in common with many members of the current administration, including Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle. They have never experienced the horror of war. All these officials, pushing so hard for this war, managed to avoid service in Vietnam. I also missed Vietnam. I was a teacher at the time, and we teachers were not drafted.

Later, as a peace activist in the mid-1980s, I felt the need to get a closer look at what I had missed. I visited various war zones on a half-dozen occasions as a freelance writer. In Bosnia, a U.N. tank took me through the front lines to a town that was surrounded by enemy troops and artillery. There, I crawled through a sniper zone to visit the gravesite of seven children who had been massacred two days earlier. I witnessed an entire village in flames. Gunfire and the sound of exploding artillery shells punctuated those three days of horror. Every second I was out there could have been my last. And I knew it. For the innocent human beings who lived there, every minute of their waking lives was filled with unspeakable anxiety and fear. Today, they understood, it could be my child. Tonight, it could be our house.

The Iraqi people have lived through war before. Now they sit and wait for hell to happen all around them again. You would think the barbarous attacks on American soil a year ago would nudge our leaders toward more creative responses, more humane solutions to international conflict. Instead, our inclination is still toward violence. War. And you can take my word for it, war is truly something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.

This is Jim Luken.

Jim Luken is a writer and manages a senior living facility.

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