A Passion For Peace, Forged in War
From the New Jersey section of the Sunday NY Times:
Sun Mar 2 2003
Page 4, Column 1
The New York Times c. 2003
New York Times Company

JERSEY CITY -- THEY say there are no atheists in foxholes, but sometimes there are peace activists there. At least future ones.

That was the case with David Cline, a major player in the peace movement here, who earned three purple hearts, a bronze star for bravery and a medal from New York state for service in Vietnam.

Today, the 56-year-old Mr. Cline is president of Veterans for Peace, an organization with 50 chapters and 3,000 active members nationwide. He lives on disability, veteran benefits and a pension from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he held numerous jobs for 16 years, from airport operations agent to union representative. These benefits allow him to work full-time against a possible war in Iraq from a tiny room in his cramped, paper-and-paraphernalia-filled apartment, where he accepts speaking engagements, sets up meetings with other peace groups, and sorts through 50 to 100 e-mail messages a day.

"I could sit around watching soap operas and Jerry Springer," he said. "Or I could do something I believe in."

There are lots of people in the peace movement these days, from pale suburban teenagers to left-leaning college professors. But veterans, like Mr. Cline, whose deeply lined face suggests physical pain and working-class struggle, lend the cause credibility. Because he has served in the Army, Mr. Cline's patriotism is not usually questioned, and because he has spent time on the battlefield, he can speak first-hand about war's costs.

"War is not a video game," Mr. Cline said recently at a peace teach-in at St. Peter's College here. "War is not a CNN news clip. And war is not a Chuck Norris movie. There's no glory in war, but there is a lot of death."

Whenever Mr. Cline speaks at an event, or walks in a protest, he expresses his sentiments in the form of a cadence, one of those sing-song chants that soldiers march to. The one he always quotes is that of a disgruntled veteran talking to a prospective soldier:

If they tell you you should go There is one thing you should know They wave the flag when you attack When you come home they turn their back.

To Woody Powell, who serves as executive director of Veterans for Peace in St. Louis, Mr. Cline is an effective spokesman for the peace movement because he "speaks from the grunt's point of view."

"People relate to David, people who have been there," Mr. Powell said. "And people who haven't been are somewhat in awe of David."

Mr. Cline became a soldier the way most young men did in the Vietnam War era; he was drafted. A native of Eden, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, Mr. Cline was not in college because he had not been a good student.

"I thought life was drinking beer, chasing girls and listening to rock and roll," he said. So at age 20 he didn't have a college deferment to keep the Selective Service at bay. He was working at the Buffalo Savings Bank, sorting computer cards needed to run the bank's mainframe, when his draft notice came.

"It was manual office labor," he said. ''I found out that even though I didn't make plans for my future, other people were."

Even though there is no official draft today, there is, according to Mr. Cline, a "poverty draft." He sees most military recruits as people with limited options, not too unlike himself at age 20. It's the same underclass that he believes was destroyed by the war in Vietnam.

"I hear about these young people being sent there, and I think about what happened to me," he said.

What happened to him was that he was shot and wounded in combat three times.

He incurred his first wound when he went into a rice paddy to save a soldier who had become seriously agitated in battle. When he turned around, he was hit in the upper back. The bullet then hit his rib and exited through his lower back. During that incident, Mr. Cline said he experienced an out-of-body experience -- the kind you read about. After he floated back down, he was hospitalized for 45 days, given two more weeks on light guard duty and then sent back into the field. After he received his second wound, shrapnel in his shoulder, he was bandaged and sent back to fight the next day.

It was the third incident that profoundly changed him.

His unit was in a foxhole, near the Cambodian border, just before the 1968 Tet offensive The foxhole was covered to protect against mortar attack, and during the battle, he spotted a soldier coming down a trail toward the opening. Unable to tell whether the soldier was American or Vietnamese, he held fire - until he saw "the front side of an AK-47 and a muzzle flash." Mr. Cline pulled his trigger and hit the other soldier in the chest. His attacker's bullet smashed through his knee.

"It was like the end of 'Platoon'," Mr. Cline said, referring to the movie. "It was totally chaos."

Though Mr. Cline was badly wounded, he could not leave the foxhole until the next morning, after the fighting ended. Pain killers got him through the night. When he was carried out, someone pointed out the soldier he had killed, who had fallen back into a tree stump, rifle in his lap. "I was on a stretcher, all shot up. This guy said, 'Here's the gook you killed.' He's patting me on the shoulder," Mr. Cline recalled. A "confirmed kill" was worth a three-day in-country pass to Saigon. "You had to kill them and get the weapon. It was kind of a bonus thing."

But suddenly Mr. Cline could not see it that way.

"I saw the guy laying there and see he's about my age," he said. "I wondered about his girlfriend. And his mother's going to get a message that he's dead."

This time, Mr. Cline was hospitalized in Japan and while he was recuperating, he came upon a book called "The New Legions" (Random House, 1967), written by Donald Duncan, a former Green Beret who became a major critic of America's role in Vietnam. "What he said started to making sense to what I had seen," Mr. Cline recalled. It was the beginning, he added, of his "political consciousness."

When he was sent home on convalescent leave, he immediately joined the Buffalo draft resistance movement, and he has been active in veterans' and anti-war causes ever since.

The main premise of Mr. Cline's rhetoric these days is that the war is a lot less attractive when witnessed up close. "In the end, people have to bear the brunt of those political decisions," he said. "Everyone who goes to war comes out of it damaged in some ways."

For Mr. Cline, the damage includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he said led to substance abuse in the 1990's, and chronic knee and back pain. But he points out that for other veterans of modern wars, much of the disability comes in the form of syndromes from exposure to toxins. Even though there were only 293 initial casualties from the Persian Gulf war, Mr. Cline claims that 12 years later, some 10,000 of the 607,000 men and women who served there are dead.

"I see a government that's willing to send another generation to fight and die without even taking care of the last ones," Mr. Cline said during his speech at St. Peter's.

Mr. Cline's next major rally is planned for the weekend of March 22, when Veterans for Peace and similar groups will gather in Washington. The rally is going by the name "Dire Distress."

"The name comes from the flag code," Mr. Cline said, referring to condition under which the American flag can be flown upside down

refusing to kill