To wage war, or not to wage war; that is the question 

  • Veterans John Hutchison, Donald Springer, Bert Kavash talk about the possibility of war with Iran this week at the American Legion Post 21. Ray Duckler / Monitor staff

  • Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike on Friday, at the Enqelab-e-Eslami (Islamic Revolution) square in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. The processions mark the first time Iran honored a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989. Soleimani on Monday will lie in... Ebrahim Noroozi

  • Kyme Locke, who gives everyone a hug, places one on World War II veteran Herb Kavash, 94, at the Post 21 in Concord on Thursday, January 9, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kyme Locke places a kiss on the side of the head of veteran Herb Kavash, 94, at the Post 21 in Concord on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/12/2020 8:35:24 PM

Some talked tough, others shed tears.

They spoke softly, endorsing a diplomatic solution to our never-ending conflict with Iran. Or they raised their voices, believing that war was needed to teach this theocracy a lesson. One veteran, tired of pussyfooting around, even pounded the table in frustration during our discussion at Concord American Legion Post 21.

Some wore vests clad with patches and pins, reflecting their service during the Vietnam War and their allegiance to a motorcycle organization that rides to support veterans.

They took turns, four Vietnam veterans, one who fought in World War II and another in the War on Terror. They actually sat at a round table for our organic roundtable, each eager, at a moment’s notice, to discuss their feelings on the possibility of war with Iran.

They drank beer, flirted with the waitress and spoke with authority, because they had experienced the noise and the smell and the sadness and the fear. They had endured the sting of battle.

That’s why I went. Many of us who never joined the military like to toss out opinions on foreign policy. And recent presidents who, some say, pulled strings to avoid service carried weaker credentials into the White House as our Commander in Chief.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower never had that problem in the 1950s. Not after leading the Allies on D-Day in 1944. Neither did George H.W. Bush, who was shot down during World War II and floated in the Pacific Ocean for hours.

They had credibility, and so did these guys. I went around the table clockwise, speaking to them one by one. I offer you their views in that same order to avoid the appearance of framing this column with an agenda.

John Hutchison

John Hutchison, known as Hutch, started, sitting to my immediate left. He lives in Weare and, after hoping he’d work as an Army cook during the Vietnam War, served as a door gunner on a helicopter, landing in Saigon in 1966. He was overseas for 13 months.

He said he saw terrible things. He told a story he’d never revealed before. The one about the 7-year-old Vietnamese kid who was shot in the head and killed once members of Hutch’s convoy realized the boy was rigged with explosives under his vest.

“You don’t know what it’s like unless you’ve been there,” Hutch said. “This is the mentality you get from being in war.”

He mentioned armchair quarterbacks, those who never served but who nevertheless insisted on adding their two cents about Vietnam.

“What I’m trying to say is you have these (people) that think war is bad and you ain’t been there,” Hutch said. “You don’t have the right, you don’t have the experience.”

Hutch said his post-war adaptive skills have been strong, telling me, “My counselor likes to call me a hard ass, because I have the ability to shut stuff out.”

He’s a hard ass when it comes to Iran, too. Hutch doesn’t believe in boots on the ground because “We’re going to have a situation where our soldiers and our freedom fighters are going to perish.”

He does, however, believe in planes in the air.

“It worked well with Japan,” noted Hutch, referring to our enemy during World War II. “To all the calmer heads, they need to know it’s time to basically blow their ass up. We’re all done.”

Donald Springer

Donald Springer lives in Hopkinton and served two tours in Vietnam during the 1970s. Like Hutch, he didn’t raise his voice. And like Hutch, he’s done cutting Iran slack.

“If we go over there and try to make peace, things will calm down for a little bit and then (Iran) will do something else,” Springer said. “And this is just going to keep going on and on until we treat them like Japan after Pearl Harbor. After that, they calmed down really good. They’ve got to see that we’re not bluffing.”

Herb Kavash

Next, I met Herb Kavash, a 94-year-old World War II veteran who lives in a Pennsylvania retirement home. He was visiting family here and stopped by Post 21 for a few beverages.

His hearing wasn’t great, but the guy was sharp, with an impressive memory and conversational skills, and attire featuring a sleeveless blue vest, crisp white shirt and tie. Post 21 waitress Kyme Locke was all over him, hugging and kissing.

Kavash joined The Navy before finishing high school and served on the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard in the Pacific Theater.

Kavash showed a framed photo of the carrier. He also showed a cautious side with respect to Iran.

“I think we should go diplomatically, not at first with weapons,” Kavash said, in between bites of his hotdog. “You’re going to have a big problem if you try to fight with weapons in Iran. They don’t care about (their) lives.”

Harry Hirtle

Harry Hirtle of Middleton was next. The Vietnam veteran, the individual who pounded on the table for emphasis, made sure I knew his family background – eight boys, including himself, serving across all four branches of the military. He also loves his country, telling me, “We believe in America and will do anything, anything for our country. I always have and always will.”

He enlisted for Vietnam while in high school and was shipped over in the summer of 1972, serving as a security police officer. He knew dates and history, and it quickly became apparent how he felt about the Vietnam War. The United States held back, a strategic mistake.

“We knew it was going to continue,” Hirtle said. “Peace with honor my ass. We should have beat the (expletive) out of them like we could have.”

Hirtle saw parallels between the war in Vietnam and the tension with Iran, which escalated recently when America killed a top Iranian general, and Iran countered with a relatively harmless bombing campaign on two bases in Iraq.

He said public opinion in Vietnam, fueled by media reports about a quagmire and an unwinnable conflict, turned against the military and led to our exit in 1973.

“Just like today,” Hirtle said, “the media is playing into it, garnering support for Iran instead of their American soldiers.”

Hirtle didn’t appreciate Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi or John Kerry’s criticism of the war. He pulled no punches, both when making his point and beating up the table, and he faulted the United States for not bringing the war to the enemy, for not treating the North like a schoolyard bully.

He cited his role in school, that of a guardian angel, a protector of the bullied.

“You try to placate the bully and be diplomatic with him, and he sees you relinquishing everything you have,” Hirtle said. “You need to deal with bullies the way they deal with you. Knock them on their ass, let them know you can do that, and that’s what the United States needs to do (with Iran).”

Louie Rivera

Louie Rivera, a Puerto Rico native, agreed. He arrived in Vietnam in 1966, calling himself a grunt, a member of the infantry. He blamed Democrats for limiting America’s bombing campaign in Vietnam. He said we should have been more aggressive. Then he had nothing else to say, too choked up to continue.

“Can you go to the next guy?” asked Rivera, bowing his head, fighting back tears. Locke rubbed his back.

John Rodgers

John Rodgers, who spent 32 years in the military and was part of the Air National Guard in Iraq in 2007-08, was on deck. He said Iran’s recent missile attack on American bases was done “to save face,” a way to appear tough to its people while not poking the United States too hard.

That equaled a balance, Rodgers said, a country keeping its reputation intact while killing no one. That could prevent all-out war.

“We know if we start a war with them it’s like stepping into quicksand, it’s a place we don’t want to be,” Rodgers said. “But we want them to know if they mess with us, we will retaliate.

“There’s a part that says diplomacy is needed,” Rodgers continued. “There’s a certain wisdom that you need to have as far as backing off and letting a few things go.”

That’s where we are now. In a holding pattern, wondering if Iran is plotting another attack. Something with a bit more bite perhaps? Something that will prompt a violent response from us. Something that will turn this chess match into a boxing match?

Hirtle sees no other option. He sees an unstable regime that’s still trying to build an atomic bomb. He sees a country known for terrorism.

“We need to strike,” Hirtle said. “We need to take those nuclear plants out and take away that option from them, and I’m sorry because I know a lot of people aren’t going to agree with that.”

At the table, some did, some didn’t. Across the country, some do, some don’t.

Rarely did an optimistic, idealistic picture emerge from our roundtable. Except when Springer said, “Iran’s objective is to make us look bad. And what we’re trying to do, I believe, is just make world peace. I think everybody at the table would love to see that.”

No one said a word. Instead, all six veterans shook their heads in agreement.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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