A Latino Response to the Gulf Crisis

Carlos Muñoz, Jr.

AS A VIETNAM war era veteran who paid homage this past Veterans Day holiday to my comrades who died on the battlefields of Vietnam, I am deeply disturbed that the president of the United States ignores the tragic lessons of the Indochina War.

As the crisis in the Persian Gulf intensifies, and as we observe the mass mobilization of U.S. troops, President Bush speaks loud and clear. We read his lips and his message is not one of hope and peace. It is a chilling message of intolerance for the rights of sovereign nations to settle their own disputes and a frightening message of war.

There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Bush is preparing for another Vietnam tragedy. By the first of the year, there will be over 400,000 U.S. combat-ready troops in the Persian Gulf. If war breaks out, it will be much more tragic than Vietnam: Military experts are predicting much higher casualty rates among combatants and civilians.

In his speech to the Congress on September 12, 1990, President Bush made it clear that our country must prepare for the prospect of bloodshed in Kuwait U.S. troops and hostages may have to die.

I awaited with anticipation the response of the Democratic Party, hoping to hear opposition to the president’s statement of war. Instead, (Democratic Senate leader) Richard Gephardt sounded like a loyal ally to the Republican Party and the Bush Administration, saying “The President has asked for our support. He has it. We are clear about what’s involved. And it’s right.”

Gephardt went on to congratulate the U.S. troops for “frontline defense against a fanatical regime.” He went on, “We are not there simply for oil or to save kings, but to defend the most fundamental values: a more stable and decent world.” if Saddam Hussein starts a war, Gephardt continued, “know that we will finish it.”

Respected journalists, usually of critical opinion, also bought the Bush rhetoric. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, for example, stated in one of his columns that “President Bush has handled the Iraqi crisis with wisdom, professionalism and care for long-term interests rare in recent decades of American leadership.”

Lewis, once a skeptic of Bush policy, proclaimed himself an admirer of the president and concluded his column with the following words: “Americans can believe in the government’s policy (towards Iraq) and be proud of it!”

Sober Second Thoughts

Two months later, some Democratic and even a few Republican congresspersons have finally started asking the president some critical questions. Some have decided to take a stand against Bush.

Congressman Ron Dellums is leading a contingent to federal court to attempt to prevent the president from taking “offensive” military action against Iraq; others are finally raising the issues of the power of the presidency to involve U.S. troops in warfare without congressional authorization in adherence to the War Powers Act.

Mr. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times has also taken a second look at the issue. On November 14, he wrote that the president will make “a tragic mistake for his country and himself” if he takes unilateral action. Lewis now concludes that the president “lacks the authority essential to take a democratic country into a costly war support in law and in the opinion of his people.”

I am convinced that a major factor for the emergence of critical opinion has been an emerging anti-war and peace movement in this country, largely led by Vietnam War veterans and peace activists from the 1960s anti-war movement. But the president’s rhetoric of war and his strong belief that he has the power to defeat Saddam Hussein “by whatever means necessary” reflects that the emerging opposition has not deterred his militaristic stance.

The Latino Stake

Latinos have a special stake in preventing another Vietnam War. As a Mexican American veteran, I remember much too vividly that Latinos were overrepresented in the front lines and in combat units during the Indochina War.

Thousands of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans died on the battlefields of that war. Collectively, Latinos suffered 20% of the casualties in that war when we represented less than 5% of the total U.S. population.

Of those Latino combat veterans who were fortunate to return alive, many came home wounded, without legs, eyes, arms. Thousands also came home with deep psychological and emotional scars. According to a recent study of Vietnam combat veterans by the Research Triangle Institute, 27% of the total of 470,000 combat veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are Latinos.

These statistics underscored the over-representation of Latino soldiers in the trenches of battle. It is tragic that Latino soldiers are once again over-represented in the ranks of combat troops when they do not have social justice, ready to put their lives on the line in the Gulf when they are over-represented in the ranks of the poor back home.

Latinos represent 42% of the 3.2 million people who joined the ranks of the poor between 1980 and 1987; 5.5 million Latinos live below the federal poverty level. Latinos are also over-represented in the ranks of the unemployed, in the ranks of cheap labor and in prison. They are under-represented in institutions of higher learning and in the political and economic institutions of this nation.

Sacrifice for What?

It is therefore unjust that Latinos, a people who have contributed to the building of this nation as workers and have fought in every major U.S. war with courage and unquestioned loyalty, are asked to once again give up their lives in another unjust war.

This time, Latino soldiers will die so that multinational corporations can maintain control over oil resources and maximize profits at the expense of the working people of our nation. Their sacrifice will not make life better at home for their parents and families. They will continue to be oppressed as workers, as women, and because of their language, race and culture.

Preventing another Vietnam War in the Persian Gulf is possible only if the emerging anti-war and peace movement spreads rapidly. Latinos are a crucial sector to be mobilized and to become an important part of the movement.

The time has come for those of us in all walks of life to raise our collective voices, to denounce the Bush foreign policy of war and demand that the president immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from the Persian Gulf.

We must demand that our president follow in the footsteps of a great Mexican president by the name of Benito Juarez who believed, in his own words, that “El Respecto al Derecho Ajeno es la Paz” — the respect for others’ rights is the road to peace.

January-February 1991, ATC 30

Muñoz