Is it possible to oppose a war and still support the men and women fighting in it?
Can the same person thoughtfully attend both a peace vigil and a pro-troops rally?
Dan Seidenberg and Lane Anderson, both Vietnam veterans, say yes.
War Bringing Peace
Seidenberg and Anderson sit in Seidenberg’s living room in downtown Santa Barbara, sipping tea. Both are eager to talk about the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism and their time in Vietnam. They have known each other for over 20 years, when they met through their work at the Veterans Center.
Seidenberg, an army infantryman in Vietnam, said he “ended his military career” when a piece of a rocket hit him in the right temple, almost killing him. Because of the injury, he requested the interview take place early in the day and in person – his head begins to ring if he stays on the phone for too long.
Both men have been involved in their own sort of peace movement since their time in the military – Anderson said he wore a peace sign on his chest while serving as a navy weapons specialist in Vietnam. Seidenberg, president of the Santa Barbara chapter of Veterans For Peace – of which both men were founding members – says proudly that he “broke the chain” of military service with his children; he will be the last serviceman on his father’s side of the family, which served in almost every war of the 20th century.
Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home
Anderson said he began marching for peace at the second downtown rally last fall, when the administration first began its push toward war. Seidenberg has also marched since last year.
They have also walked with the rallies supporting American troops overseas.
To Anderson and Seidenberg, there is no contradiction in terms here – they believe strongly in supporting the men and women who are fighting a war they oppose. They say over and over again that the public must separate the policymakers from those forced to carry out the policy.
“You can support the troops but at the same time, not support the government. … We all support children, but we don’t support child abusers. We don’t support abusing our troops or misusing our troops,” Seidenberg said.
He said he was appalled in Vietnam by the blind faith with which many served their government and made a conscious effort himself to serve in a way that upheld his own morals as much as possible.
“But those troops will do what the policymakers tell them to – they’ve been trained. They’re young kids. … People refuse to see the difference between the government and the troops; there’s a huge difference. There’s a huge difference between the policymakers and the people who have to carry out the policy at the point of a bayonet. In the Nuremberg trials, none of the average soldiers were tried for war crimes – why is that? They don’t make the policy, and, to a large degree , they’re fighting for their lives most of the time.”
Anderson said while he also disagrees with the war, supporting the people fighting it is a no-brainer.
“There’s no way I’m gonna be on the opposite side of a Support Our Troops rally. Now, if that bunch wants to call themselves a pro-war or pro-Bush rally, then I wouldn’t even go,” he said.
Anderson said what he is most disheartened by now are the divisions and the reminders of the Vietnam era, as men and women began to be sent home – to be buried.
“This is going to be a never-ending story of body bags coming home,” he said. “Little by little, we’re gonna see the numbers add up – and for what?”
So when the war actually began, Anderson and Seidenberg – along with many other veterans in the area – decided to try to strike a balance. Anderson began to organize peace vigils, which take place every Friday evening and Saturday morning at the downtown post office.
“I withdrew from the Saturday marches as soon as the combat really began and I started a silent vigil as an alternative for people who didn’t want to be mixed in with the variety of messages, the variety of moods that the Saturday march had become,” Seidenberg explained. “We started as a fallback if people didn’t want to be involved in street theater and drumming while young Americans were dying and being required to kill Iraqis. If people thought a more somber mood was more appropriate, they could come and join us.”
Though both veterans agree with much of the anti-Bush rhetoric present at the marches, they are also careful to separate themselves from the anti-troops rhetoric.
“I didn’t want to be a part of a demonstration that I wasn’t sure what the perception of it was,” Anderson said. “I know how painful it must be for the soldier who looked in the van and realized he had just killed a car full of women and children, and I don’t want to be a part of something that’s gonna increase the pain that he’s gonna live with for the rest of his life.”
Don’t Give Up Once the War Ends
Both men say they see similarities between the war happening now and the one they were involved with over 30 years ago in the policy of the coalition forces and the reasoning for entering into combat.
“I see parallels; we’re going over with feigned, if not real, ignorance of the history of the region,” Anderson said. “We’re going over for an ‘ism’ – that was a war on communism, this is a war on terrorism, and yet there are no terrorists [in Iraq], just as I found there were no communists [in Vietnam]. People perceived us as invaders. … The large parallel is that people see us as invaders here too.” Seidenberg echoed similar sentiment, saying the rhetoric regarding the liberation of Iraqi people mirrored that which American soldiers were fed in Vietnam. In reality, Seidenberg said, most Vietnamese civilians did view the Americans as an invading force. “Invading a country that never threatened us,” he said.
But what they fear most is what will happen when the American forces come home from battle – that the same people who sent them to fight will refuse to support them once the war is won.
“The Bush administration has, during the last months, while they’re conducting a war, reduced the benefits in almost every arena for retired military. They’ve changed it so you have to be 70 percent disabled to get into a retirement home. They’ve changed the co-payments from almost nothing to $7 per prescription. … If anybody is failing to support the troops, it’s the Bush administration. … These young men and women will soon be veterans,” Anderson said.
Seidenberg also cautioned against forgetting the veterans once they return from combat.
“People think you’re supporting the troops by rah rah waving the flag, and then once the war is over, they’re not even considered. That’s not supporting their troops. That’s supporting the policy,” he said. “The way you support troops is you support their health and wellbeing and how they rejoin society after the shooting is over. … You have to support troops for the rest of their lives.”
Seidenberg said one of the most traumatic events soldiers can face is to be confused with the people who waged the war they were forced to fight in.
“Over the period I was in combat, I was very scrupulous not to hurt anybody I didn’t have to,” Seidenberg said. “On my last ambush, a piece of rocket stuck in the side of my head, ended my military career and came very close to ending my life. I was on vocational rehabilitation about eight months later at the University of Washington and I had an eye patch on. … One of the other students said, ‘What happened?’ and I told him I was hurt in Vietnam. He said, ‘You deserved it.’ So how did that make me feel?”