Congress's war dissenters strive to be heard

The fast pace of events puts more obstacles in the way of efforts to delay or avert military action.

George McGovern may have lost the presidency in 1972 by one of the widest margins in American history, but it hasn't dented his conviction in voicing contrarian viewpoints to a nation on war footing.

In 1972 it was Vietnam. Today he says that the United States has no business getting involved in a war in Iraq.

"What have they done to hurt us? Nothing. No attacks on a person or property. No evidence that Iraq is involved in the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Is it against the law to build weapons of mass destruction?... There are nine members of the nuclear club and we don't go to war with them," says the former senator in a wide-ranging interview in his home in Mitchell, S.D.

A prairie preacher's son, Mr. McGovern was the most eloquent spokesman of his generation against the war in Vietnam. He was also a World War II hero, flying 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot, including once landing a disabled plane on one wheel – for which he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. In a September 1970 speech to overflowing galleries, he railed against the Congress for allowing the "cruelest, the most barbaric, and the most stupid war in our national history" to continue.

"And every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave," he said. The Sept. 1 vote to end the war failed, but some scholars call it the beginning of the end of that war.

Today, he wonders why the antiwar movement in Congress appears so feeble.

IT'S a question not so much of parallel situations – thousands of Americans had died in Vietnam by 1970 – as of national memory. When Congress debated launching the Gulf War in 1991, the perils of that war were relatively fresh in memory, and many lawmakers opposed war. Today, America's quick successes from Operation Desert Storm through the recent campaign in Afghanistan have eclipsed some of Vietnam's trauma.

Still, a small but growing number of current lawmakers, many of whom came into politics in the McGovern era, are differing with President Bush.

As Congress moves toward agreement on a resolution to use force in Iraq, dissenters are struggling to rally some form of opposition. In the House, some 40 members of the Iraq Working Group are trying to avert military action altogether. Meanwhile, 73 have signed a petition asking for the vote to be delayed until after the election.

But they acknowledge that the agreement reached yesterday between Mr. Bush and House leaders makes even the goal of winning more time for debate unlikely. They hope that a credible opposition could at least pressure the White House into more aggressive diplomatic efforts to build an international consensus on how to proceed. "The biggest mistake we could make is trying to do this alone," says Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, who just returned from a "humanitarian mission" to Iraq with Reps. David Bonior (D) of Michigan and Mike Thompson (D) of California. The three Democrats said that the purpose of their trip was to convince Saddam Hussein to comply with UN inspectors.

They returned to harsh criticism from GOP leaders, as well as many political commentators who dubbed the three Democrats everything from "useful idiots for Saddam" to traitors.

"At a time when America is fighting a war on terror, talk like this only helps enemies of freedom.... It's one thing to have a civil discourse on the merits of a preemptive strike or war. It's another to fly to Iraq and take the word of a tyrant over the American president and the American people," says Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R) of Oklahoma.

But Congressman McDermott – who recently won his primary race in his liberal district of Seattle with 77 percent of the vote – says the issue is worth the heat. As a former Navy psychiatrist who treated Vietnam veterans, he says that "dealing with the casualties of Vietnam" compels him to look at any future commitment of troops with great care.

His Democratic colleagues also saw service during the Vietnam era. Mr. Bonior served in the Air Force stateside, while Mike Thompson served in the Army in Vietnam and earned a purple heart. While McDermott and Thompson's district are solidly Democratic, Mr. Bonior's stance on the war put him at risk in a suburban Detroit district that often votes Republican. He recently lost a primary bid for governor.

In fact, a war record is emerging as one of the key credentials in the emerging congressional debate. Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's Vietnam record has also amplified his voice as a GOP moderate urging a multilateral approach on Iraq.

"America alone cannot defeat this scourge of mankind. We will require partners," he said in a speech Monday. It's a view George McGovern could support.

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