On television recently, I heard Norman Podhoretz, an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani, advocate the bombing of Iran, and it was clear that a drumbeat of opinion was pushing us toward another war in the Middle East. I mentioned this to a Portland friend who follows politics closely, and he told me to worry about something else. "We Americans don't go to war unless Congress wants it and the public supports it." He added that our armed forces are stretched so thin that even the military couldn't stomach another war.
I might have breathed easier, except I started thinking about a brave man named Gwen Coffin, editor and publisher of the weekly Wallowa County Chieftain from the 1 940s to the 1 970s. Although Coffin supported the war effort against the Japanese and German governments, he insisted on looking at what the war was doing to our nation and to his own small community in Oregon. He praised Victory Gardens and the boys who served, yet cautioned about war profiteers whose greed outweighed their patriotism. He also told his readers in 1 943 that in years to come our nation would not be proud of our Japanese internment camps. He wasn't much listened to decades ago, but he was, of course, right.
Years later, the Chieftain was among the first newspapers to editorialize against the Vietnam War. Sure, it was one small voice, but it was a voice reminding us that in a democracy there is always opportunity for the minority view to become the majority view. Love 'em or hate 'em, the press is the vehicle of witness and the place where minority opinions gestate on their way to becoming majority opinions.
I'm no expert on Iran, but I know some things. First, I know that our CIA, along with British secret agencies, engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran, and the reinstatement of a pro-western, pro-oil company government under the leadership of Shah Reza Pahlevi, in 1953. This information was known by most Iranians but hidden from Americans until recently. The records are now open and the story is told in several books, including "All the Shah's Men." I spent a month in Iran in 1968, when the Shah was at the height of his power, but not his popularity. He was busy with preparations for the celebration of 2,000 years of the Peacock Throne, an orchestrated event that was to tie him -- though the Pahlevi dynasty was no older than a few generations --to fabled King Darius. I was interviewing Peace Corps volunteers, many of them engineers and architects, who chafed at building parks and statues honoring and enriching one man and his family, while millions in the country needed schools, hospitals and houses.
A few years later, after the Iranian revolution, the British refused the unpopular and physically ailing Shah admittance to their country and hospitals, knowing there would be angry reactions in Iran. At Henry Kissinger's insistence, President Carter welcomed the Shah. Not long after, the religious fanatics supporting Ayatollah Khomeini beat back the communists and the middle-of-the-road secularists and took the American hostages that, among other things, turned Carter into a one-term President. Let's also not forget that our government gave aid to Saddam Hussein during the brutal war between Iraq and Iran, a war that left millions on both sides dead, maimed or displaced.
So now we have President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Giuliani's foreign policy advisor and some in the Israeli government saber-rattling at Iran, some of them talking openly about bombing Iranian bomb factories. Knowing now how little we knew before 70 percent of Americans supported President Bush in going to war against Iraq, knowing how many Iraqi civilians and American soldiers have been killed and injured and jarred from their homes and normal Iives, knowing that Iranians have reason to distrust and dislike us and that Iran has three times the population and more technology than Iraq had a decade ago, knowing how many people have left our military because they cannot agree with current policy and cannot live with the stresses on their families, and remembering Gwen Coffin, I feel compelled to raise my small voice to say "no." Even if Iran joins the nuclear club, which already includes India, Pakistan, Israel, China, and North Korea, I still say "no."
My Portland friend is right: There are a lot of other things to worry about. But I want to weigh in now with caution as our government inches toward a decision to bomb Iran. I believe that if enough small voices counter those with loud voices in high places, we can pull back from engaging in another war in the Middle East.
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Enterprise, Oregon, where he directs Fishtrap, a nonprofit organization promoting writers and writing in the West.