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Last Updated: Friday, 25 April, 2003, 05:12 GMT 06:12 UK
My War: Gulf War veteran and peace activist

Erik Gustafson is a US veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, serving with the 864th Engineer Battalion, who became a peace activist. He is the executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq centre, and a co-founder of the Veterans for Common Sense.

It was a very empowering time before the war started.

It felt like democracy was working, and the media was doing an excellent job in laying out the arguments.

Over 160 cities and towns had passed resolutions against the war, and even the trade union federation the AFL-CIO, representing 13m workers, had done the same.

Momentum seemed to be on our side, and if we failed to prevent the war, it seemed to be because the president was not listening.

War ultimatum

I felt betrayed when I heard President George W Bush's ultimatum.

I felt that all the talk about compelling the regime to disarm had been a game - all the time this administration had been hell-bent on war, and all the talk about weapons of mass destruction had been a game.

It had all been about selling the war, and giving it a fig leaf of legality.

And it was going to do great harm to US relations with the rest of the world.

There was a disconnect between my experiences of the brutality of the fighting and the Hollywood version of the war on CNN
Erik Gustafson

It was a very strange experience to watch this war unfolding on television.

When I had returned from the last Gulf War, there was a disconnect between my experiences of the brutality of the fighting, and the clean, precision, Hollywood version of the war on CNN.

I stopped telling people about my experiences because it was too painful.

Now, I was horrified to see the cheerleading on networks like Fox and how that would affect those who had experienced combat.

I was struggling with a lot of emotions. I was glad to see pictures of the troops on the ground from embedded reporters. I felt I could see and feel what they were feeling.

I felt it was natural for them, being in harm's way and having to kill, to be able to justify the war as just and honourable - and getting rid of Saddam Hussein did do that for the soldiers.

Looting Baghdad

I was furious about the looting of Baghdad, and the colossal loss, not just of human life, but of the treasures of civilisation held at the national museum.

But in a way I expected it, as I knew about the long debate with the Army about having more troops on the ground. It was always going to be a gamble, risking supply lines.

But the delay in established order has already cost lives as humanitarian aid could not reach the people who needed it.

I think it will be an enormous challenge to create democracy in Iraq, and not just install Pentagon placemen like Ahmed Chalabi.

I would like to see the international community involved in giving legitimacy to any new regime, but I don't have a lot of confidence that the Bush administration will accept that.

Planning for the future

I am on my way to a three-day retreat with other peace organisations to discuss the next steps we should take.

We have built a very broad movement, and we have to build on that, and play a powerful role in electoral politics.

We need to oppose the radical shift by the Bush administration to the doctrine of pre-emptive war.

And we need to work towards constitutional change, where Congress and the courts will act as more of a check on the right of the president to declare war.

I am very discouraged by what is happening in Iraq, but I have faith in the international community and ultimately in the American people to build a stronger democracy.

Ultimately we are witnessing over-reach, and at least we live in a system where that could be self-corrected by elections in 2004.

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