They survived the Depression and World War II, lived through Vietnam and Watergate, witnessed the Iranian hostage crisis, the Persian Gulf War and the Internet boom and bust. Shocked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they saw terror replayed in the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Now, members of the World War II generation are worried about a possible war in Iraq. Of all the generations studied by pollsters, these Americans -- now in their 70s, 80s and 90s -- are showing the most resistance to an invasion in Iraq in surveys of American opinion.
Members of the World War II generation interviewed for this story do not shrink from war. They almost universally supported the U.S. campaign to rout the Taliban from Afghanistan, and most would endorse further efforts to defend the United States against terrorism. Some wish the United States had been more aggressive earlier with North Korea, and one even suggested going to war against Saudi Arabia.
Instead, concerns center on the view of some that Washington has not made its case. Many are unconvinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is harnessing weapons of mass destruction, and they are dubious about invading his country before he has attacked the United States. Others are suspicious that President Bush and his war cabinet are motivated by a desire to avenge the first President Bush's mistakes or to capture a ready supply of oil.
Being patriotic, however, they await an explanation -- beyond oil or revenge -- that will satisfy their memories of fighting what they view as the Last Great War. "Now don't paint me as un-American," said Fred Thomas, 90, a retired telephone executive in Opelika, Ala., who commanded an artillery battery of the 79th Infantry Division in Europe. "I'm a solid, hard-rock American. I've been a Republican since 1934. I just don't like fighting the kind of war that I can't put my fingers on. With the Germans, you could depend on what they were going to do, but these people fight different."
Gibson Reynolds, a 78-year-old retired aerospace engineer from Tuxedo, N.Y., echoed the point. A Signal corpsman during World War II, he said he has "always been very pro-American, it's part of the history of being at war." But he sees no evidence so far that merits going to war in Iraq. "I'm willing to be convinced either way," he said. "But if there's some darned good reason for going to war, I haven't seen it yet. There was a reason for going into Afghanistan. I was in favor of that. There was a reason for going into Kuwait. I was in favor of that. In this present situation, I have not been given enough information to know."
The Rev. Bill Berglund, 82, was a Marine who served, proudly, in World War II and Korea. He entered the seminary in 1969 at age 49. He is not, however, a pacifist. Berglund said he would have fought in Afghanistan too, "if I weren't so old and feeble," and if they had let him on the battlefield in his golf cart. And he has not ruled out going to war with Saudi Arabia. "They financed 9/11, and their young men flew the planes," he said.
But ask Berglund, who lives in a retirement community in Elizabethtown, Pa., about Iraq, and he all but bristles. "I am dead set against it," he said. "It is a needless exercise of power by a certain group of people in Washington."
In a Los Angeles Times Poll last month, support for sending U.S. ground troops to Iraq was 58% among all 1,305 respondents compared with 35% among the World War II generation. A poll of 4,469 Americans by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in the fall indicated that 60% of Americans favored taking action in Iraq to end Hussein's regime, but that only 41% of participants 75 and older supported such action.
The margin of error for The Times survey was plus or minus 3 percentage points; it was 2 percentage points in the Pew poll.
Women in every generation are more opposed to war than men, and in the senior generation, female support was only 35% in the Pew poll. But even among men, many of whom served in World War II, support was sharply lower among the World War II generation. Men in Generation X (ages 26 to 37) registered a whopping 71% support for forcing out Saddam Hussein in the Pew survey. But only 53% of the male participants 75 years old and older said they supported U.S. military action in Iraq.
Robert H. Bates turned 92 on Tuesday. A mountain climber, he was a consultant to the 10th Mountain Division when it was founded in World War II. The co-author of "K2-The Savage Mountain," Bates lives now in Exeter, N.H., with his wife, Gail.
"If they prove it, I'm all for it," he said. "Saddam Hussein is very bad for the world, but there has to be much more evidence out there. It would be very bad for America to go it alone."
Having seen combat, and especially the rhetoric that precedes it, William Frick of Riverside, Conn., is convinced that the United States is not going to war in Iraq. He recalls media predictions about the millions who would be killed if the United States invaded France, and notes that far fewer died on the beaches and towns of Normandy. "Don't believe the hoopla," said Frick, an 84-year-old former history and English teacher. "The deployment is part of a scheme to prove to Saddam Hussein that we mean business."
Robert Baker, an 81-year-old accountant in Webb City, Mo., agrees that Bush may well be engaging in psychological warfare against his opponent, much as Gen. George S. Patton Jr. did during World War II. He feels reassured that the president's father will talk with him about the hazards of war, "because parents have a way of telling their kids." If war comes, however, he will support it. "You don't go out and protest a war," he said.
Of course, not everyone in the World War II generation opposes a possible war in Iraq.
"I don't think there's any question about Saddam Hussein being a bad guy. Nobody is going to give him the Nobel Peace Prize," said Royden C. Sanders, at 85 still the director of Sanders Design International in Wilton, N.H. "If we don't do this and then he sends up a biological bomb into New York City or London or even Israel, we would have a real disaster."
Still, much of Sanders' faith in the administration's case rests on his belief that Bush must have the evidence or he would not risk "making the biggest mistake of his life. If this is just a sham, if we went in there and there wasn't anything, then he would be finished, he would not even run for a second term," Sanders said.
For similar reasons, Dr. H. William Gross said he does not understand why, if U.S. intelligence knows where to locate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the CIA does not share that information with UN inspectors. And he does not understand why the United States is contemplating war with Iraq but not with North Korea -- or why it is considering marching on Baghdad when it did not confiscate a shipload of North Korean scud missiles headed for Yemen.
"If we have to go into Baghdad, it will be another Vietnam," said Gross, a 74-year-old dentist in Allentown, Pa., who served in the Navy during the Korean War.
That the generation that survived World War II is talking about the possibility of war in Iraq is evident in the class that Jean-Paul Benowitz teaches weekly at the Masonic Homes retirement community in Elizabethtown.
A historian at Penn State University, Benowitz assigns readings and conducts class discussions. In lieu of a final, the participants schedule a trip to visit the history just studied -- to London if the topic is Sir Winston Churchill, to Oyster Bay, N.Y., if it's Theodore Roosevelt.
Nine weeks into a fall 2002 course on President Harry S. Truman, Benowitz was talking about Truman's decision in 1948 to recognize the state of Israel, and how Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria promptly attacked Israel.
As Benowitz recalls the discussion, someone in the back of the room shouted, "And that's when all our problems with Iraq began." Soon the interruptions came one after another: "No wonder we have so much trouble with Iraq;" "The U.S. is going to war with Iraq because of oil;" No, said another student, "George Bush is going to war with Saddam Hussein because he tried to kill his father." Benowitz waited to steer the class back to Truman. "I am 34 years old, and they are on average 75 years old, and sometimes it is better for me to listen to them rather than the other way around," he said. "I find it fascinating to compare their actual memory of the past with how historians interpret the past."
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For, against war
A look at what Americans think about a possible war in Iraq, according to two recent polls:
Los Angeles Times poll
Q: Suppose President Bush decides to order U.S. troops into a ground attack against Iraqi forces. Would you support or oppose that decision?
77 and older
The Times Poll contacted 1,305 Americans nationwide by telephone Dec. 12-15. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
Pew Research Center poll
Q: Would you favor or oppose taking military action in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein's rule?
Age group: 18-25
Age group: 26-37
Age group: 38-56
Age group: 57-74
Age group: 75 and older
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press contacted 4,469 Americans nationwide by telephone during three polling periods in 2002: Oct 2-6, Oct 17-27, and Dec 4-8. Surveys were conducted with random sampling of the adult U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is 2 percentage points. For subgroups the margin is somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
Sources: Los Angeles Times Poll; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press