Do you support the troops? A simple question if you believe the war in Iraq is just. But for those who oppose the war, it can be a question...

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Do you support the troops?

A simple question if you believe the war in Iraq is just.
But for those who oppose the war, it can be a question loaded with moral complexity.

That was evident this week when three veterans told their Iraq war stories to a crowd of 600 at Seattle’s Town Hall.

In one sense, they said, soldiers are chess pieces, sent into combat by policy-makers. If you have issues with the war, don’t blame the grunts who signed up to serve their country and aren’t responsible.

Then came the story of Navy Lt. John Oliveira. As spokesman for the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, Oliveira, 39, of Darrington, Snohomish County, was a salesman for the invasion that began two years ago tomorrow.

Every day in the spring of 2003, he stood before cameras and said how the war would scrub Iraq of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, making the world a safer place.

The trouble was, he didn’t believe a word of it.

He had 16 years in the Navy, but Oliveira says now he’d never been part of a military activity as ill-advised or imperialistic as the invasion of Iraq.

“I knew it was wrong before we attacked,” he told me. “I went to do my job, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I got depressed. I couldn’t stand up and lie about it anymore.”

In late April 2003, he had a nervous breakdown. After he was shipped home, he resigned. Ever since, he’s been speaking out against the war.

His story got me thinking: If this serviceman holds himself accountable for the war to the point that he quit, is it true the troops are just chess pieces?

Sitting next to Oliveira at Town Hall was Maj. Terry Thomas, 36, a Seattle Marine who invaded southern Iraq.

Soldiers have limited free will once they join, he said. They don’t pick the war. They just follow orders and fight.

This is one reason it upsets him so much when he sees “War is terrorism” stickers in his Wallingford neighborhood.

“If war is terrorism, that makes me, the warrior, into a terrorist,” he said. “It’s sick. I believe the war has been noble and worthwhile. But even if I didn’t, I’d be offended by the names I get called.”

Oliveira, despite his own decision to quit, says war opponents should support rank-and-file troops. Some join solely for economic reasons. Some may not support the war but must fight it or be jailed.

Some war backers say it’s dishonest to parse the matter.

“I don’t think anyone who opposes the war genuinely supports the troops,” said Nadine Gulit of Operation Support Our Troops. “War is what the troops do. You can’t separate the two.”

When I see returning soldiers in the airport, I thank them for their service even though I opposed the invasion. Is that insincere? I guess I choose to isolate the machinery of war from the people who push the buttons.

Thomas, who organized the forum despite his anger at how he’s treated by some Seattleites, says it’s progress we’re even having this conversation.

“After Vietnam, nobody wanted to talk about the veterans. Then suddenly there were thousands of them weeping at a wall, and it was too late.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.