Sure, political pragmatism played a big role in D.C. Council Chairman John A. Wilson's decision to keep quiet on the U.S.-led war against Iraq: The city is broke, so why offend Congress with harsh words of protest when it holds the purse that could bail the District out?

But there's more to it than that. Wilson says that Operation Desert Storm also has forced him to take a long look in the mirror and work through his sense of regret over a role he played during the Vietnam War. And that has contributed to his silence. When he founded the National Black Anti-War Anti-Draft Union in the mid-1960s, Wilson was young and passionate in his opposition to American involvement in Southeast Asia.

"When I looked at the number of people who went to high school and college with me who died in that war, my purpose at that point was to try to stop it," he said.

In the years that have passed, however, Wilson's concerns have shifted to those who survived the war and came home to a country where protest was rampant. At best the GIs were ignored, he said, and at worst they were ridiculed for putting their lives on the line for their country.

"I don't think we should ever treat an American citizen the way we treated those American soldiers returning home," he said. "I don't think those people who went should have been punished."

Wilson said he would have voted against Operation Desert Storm, given the opportunity, so on that score he shares the opinion of other top elected District officials. However, Wilson remains opposed to returning to a draft.

"I think people have to be given an option," he said. "I don't think everybody's suited for {military service}. Some people are and some people aren't. That's the choice they have to make. Everybody there {on the front} at this point knew that this could happen. Everybody knew that was one of the risks you take when you make that decision. I think it's better sometimes to have a professional army."

Oddly enough, Wilson's position makes him a political bedfellow of Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who serves on the House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee and who advocates that the District become part of Maryland.

"When you volunteer, you take the risk that goes with it," Regula said. "If you become a policeman or fireman, you know that up front."

Regula said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Jesse L. Jackson, one of the District's shadow senators, have been presenting a "specious" case in arguing that the volunteer forces are the equal of an "economic draft." People who have no other options should not be tempted to risk their lives in exchange for the GI Bill education and job training that come with a tour of duty, they say.

Before the U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq, Norton used her first speech on the floor of the House to spell out the objections D.C. residents have to American military involvement in the Middle East. It would lead to a "war of madness," she said.

She verbally went along with the majority on Capitol Hill last week, endorsing President Bush after he committed the country to war, although she made a point of reminding her colleagues that she had no vote to cast on a resolution to that effect.

And during the heated congressional debate that preceded the outbreak of war, she talked about the irony of the District's patriotic support of U.S. efforts to free Kuwait. After all, she said, the city has no true means of determining its own destiny.

"Both as District residents and as black Americans, our people have volunteered to serve their country and if necessary, to die for their country, in greatly disproportionate numbers," she said.

"Is it too much to ask that they have a say in the matter? The next time that you are asked to cast a vote concerning the District -- whether to disallow a law passed by our city council or to add a rider to our appropriation nullifying our laws, think of the District's men and women serving in the Persian Gulf."

Regula said it was "inflammatory" to link combat service with the right to equal representation, but Norton said her speeches have served as a "wake-up call" to some members of Congress who have given her lots of positive feedback on the subject.

"People say to me, 'Eleanor, you've got to continue to make that point. A lot of us haven't thought of statehood in those terms,' " she said. Norton said the District is not hurt politically by the reactions of members such as Regula.

"The rule in the House is that people are expected to vote in a way that your constituents want to vote," she said. "I felt I had to convey the views of the residents of the District, which were overwhelmingly against going to war at this time. And secondly, I felt I had to point out the unfairness to the District of proceeding to war without a vote of yes or no on the issue, especially in light of the disproportionately large number already serving in the gulf. It seemed to me I had those two obligations."

Nonetheless, Norton said she sought a seat on the Public Works Committee "so I can exchange votes on a non-ideological basis. That's important because the District is far more progressive than many other jurisdictions."