Maybe two Gold Star mothers from the Vietnam War days have the right idea. Louise Ransom of Vermont and Pat Simon of Boston, who spent much of the '60s at anti-war marches after their sons were killed, are coming to stand vigil Saturday morning on the steps of the Capitol. They will be dressed in black; they will say nothing. They will be a silent reminder, like the Vietnam Wall, of what happens when countries send young men to battle.
There really is not much to say after the obscene utterance of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who observed briskly on the eve of the last chance in Geneva that "light to moderate" casualties in a gulf war of "about 3,000 to 5,000, with up to a thousand deaths," would be acceptable.
Aspin, a person of exceptional literal mindedness, was probably taken aback by the fury of the public response to his offhand projection. More than 300 calls, overwhelmingly critical, poured into his office. Americans who cannot understand his boyish relish in the tough-guy jargon of the military-industrial complex were appalled. His information about weapons and strategy far exceeds his wisdom, but male colleagues made him chairman because they tend to be awed by methodological claptrap that makes them forget they are talking about human beings.
Aspin was once a Pentagon whiz kid and the transition to civilian is not yet complete. A man of no fixed principles, he is one of those Democrats who thinks that Democrats should vote Republican on defense matters. He takes U-turns on policy, most often to oblige the White House -- and then looks wounded when colleagues accuse him of treachery. In the matter of the MX missile, he promised his opponents he would oppose it -- but wound up helping President Ronald Reagan get 50 of the monsters.
Not so long ago, Aspin was counseling patience in the gulf, urging a fair test of the economic sanctions. But as the drums of war began to beat, and the president began talking about Saddam Hussein getting "his ass kicked," Aspin began to see the virtue of Bush's call for "use of all necessary means." He got out his slide rule and his charts and came up with his white paper for a "rapid," although not entirely "bloodless," victory.
His chilling statement about deaths he could live with was perhaps in the nature of a preemptive strike. He knew Congress was waiting to hear from his rival, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who has kept his counsel since his closely watched hearings on the wisdom of sticking with sanctions.
Nunn's influence on matters of war and peace is legendary. He runs the Senate on those issues and he has a hard-core following of at least 20 in the House. This is an affront to Aspin, who feels he should shape the debate. He is much more accomplished than Nunn in the manipulation of the news media -- Nunn scorns the 20-second sound bite, but is treated with deference. Aspin is sometimes called "Les-make-a-deal." Nunn would not be caught dead talking about "acceptable" casualties. He is a sober, dry speaker -- not given, even in the tense Democratic caucus on the gulf resolution, to impassioned declarations. He has never said so, but he may be grateful to Aspin for making him look like a humanist.
Because of him, Senate Democrats are united behind a resolution that advocates staying the course on sanctions, and another that reminds the president that if he wishes to wage a shooting war, he must come to Congress first. They would not be even debating the issue if it were not for Tom Harkin (D), newly reelected senator from Iowa, who insisted that the Senate had to talk about what everyone in America was talking about.
Because of Aspin, House Democrats are divided. Aspin, with the help of Rep. Dante B. Fascell (Fla.), the ever-timid chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (N.Y.), a Vietnam peacenik turned hawk, is trying to rally the Democrats behind the commander in chief.
Freshman Democrat Thomas H. Andrews (Maine) said wistfully at a panel on press coverage of Congress that he was hoping for "a clear, coherent voice of leadership." He was chosen to be a member of a House group assembled by Democratic leaders to draft a resolution that closely resembles the Nunn formulation. Andrews does not see any acceptable level of casualties, as long as the alternative of an economic and political solution remains.
He could probably do no better than to listen to the silence of the Gold Star mothers on the Capitol steps.