America's new war, viewed from the VFW

WICHITA, KAN.

Glenn Collins has seen the best and worst of humanity. Sometimes, when he goes to sleep, he still sees it. On the beaches at Guadalcanal, the shores of Okinawa. Places where allegiance to the flag was measured in the courage of those who slogged ashore under a hail of bullets, and in the sacrifice of those who never returned.

"We fought like the devil for this country," says the former Navy officer, sitting in a comfy mustard-colored chair in his living room, trying to hold back tears.

Nearly 60 years later, the memories are strong - a mixture of both pride and pain that swells his chest and softens his eyes. For Mr. Collins, it remains difficult to talk about, but as with thousands of other veterans across America, these stories and experiences offer a unique perspective on the conflict to come.

From Collins's suburban Wichita home to downtown VFW halls, veterans say this would be a war unlike any other. Yet even in such an unconventional antiterrorist action, there are echoes of wars that came before - from World War II's patriotic post-Pearl Harbor call to arms to the uncertainty surrounding the endgame in Vietnam and Korea.

While there is a universal concern for soldiers' safety, the experiences of servicemen in different wars provide subtly varied reflections on what should be done and how. In addition, with polls showing a vast majority of Americans supporting a military mission, such as a new Time/CNN poll with 86 percent of respondents in favor of action, veterans' reactions give a soldier's-eye view of the costs and consequences of war.

Here in Wichita, almost all veterans agree that an armed retaliation is necessary. After that, however, there is disagreement. Many want to "get 'em all." Others are more measured, yet still speak in undertones of vengeance. For some, however - particularly World War II veterans - there is an unmistakable calmness. This is a just fight, they say: There is a job to do, and America must do it.

"It has got to be stopped someplace," says Collins, who enlisted in the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor and got married three weeks before he reported for duty in March 1942. "If we've got to go to the source, so be it."

Such discussions are short and simple, with no elaborate theories or assumptions, no clauses, dashes, or semicolons. Indeed, they seem as direct as the city itself. For Wichita is not a city of artifice or pretension; there are no great theater or opera houses along the banks of the Arkansas River. This is a working-class city of industry and prairie, a city that has not lost its saltness.

Among many of its veterans - both young and old - this character has played out in support for President Bush's course of patient persistence. "You've got to make sure you've got the right person," says Clarence Deaver of VFW Post 6957, who did tours in the Pacific during both World War II and Korea.

Around town, however, there are plentiful signs that serious action is under way. Roads in and out of McConnell Air Force Base are closed, and the ghostly indigo glow of jet afterburners trace a trail beyond the horizon, accompanied by the pane-rattling roar of B-1 bomber engines.

Like Mr. Deaver, who looks the part of a former sailor, with his bleach-white beard and sharp eyes, many veterans acknowledge that ground forces may be needed at some point. But on this most controversial of topics, there is room for wide disagreement.

Jim Skidmore, for one, says the potential costs are simply too dear. Faced with the prospect of many American dead, Mr. Skidmore is adamant: He would send in nukes before he would send in troops.

Dressed in a Marines golf shirt and shorts, Skidmore is intense from his first sentence, leaning forward in the brown recliner in his living room to accentuate the depth of his feeling. He knows that his solution sounds severe, but he - perhaps more than most - also knows what a winter campaign on the bleak slopes of Afghanistan might be like.

Some 50 years ago, the former marine was at Korea's Chosin Reservoir, where US troops were ambushed by 120,000 Chinese as temperatures fell to minus 30 degrees F. He still has a picture of the battle from an old military magazine - a snapshot of him, wrapped in his long winter gear, staring off into the snowy emptiness, encircled by dozens of fallen comrades.

"I just don't want to see troops sent in before we have an objective," he says. "What are we trying to do? When can we say we have won? You need to do everything you can to limit casualties."

His comments are a mantra for many Korea and Vietnam veterans who frequent the half-dozen or so VFW posts around town. Among this group, there is a sense that the military was never clear about what it intended to accomplish, so the job was left undone. With a similar sort of conflict now looming, they insist that America must not repeat the mistake.

"We never finished Vietnam," says an unshaven Mike Lichtenberg, who wears a black, mesh VFW Post 112 cap. "If we start a war, we better be able to finish this one...."

Previous installments of this series ran on Sept. 21, 24, 25, 26, and Oct. 2.

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